Easter eggs, Byzantium, and the Mustang. Off-Ramp for April 19, 2014

Pasadena company still puts music on cassette tape. Really

Courtesy M2Com

Behind the scenes at Pasadena cassette giant M2 Communications.

Cassette tapes may seem to have been buried by the Internet, but they’re still spinning along, and they even outsell CDs at some underground concerts. As Off-Ramp contributor CJ Greenspon reports, one of America's biggest cassette producers is a small business in Pasadena.

It’s true that cassettes are still common in many parts of the world, and for some music genres here in America. But by and large, mainstream America keeps its cassettes in a box under the house. But turn back the clock to when Memorex hired Ella Fitzgerald to show what cassette tapes could do.

Remember "Is it live? Or is it Memorex?"

That was 1974. Within 10 years, cassettes were outselling LPs. But then came CDs, and then mp3s.

But Nick Dolezal, who co-owns a cassette-only record label called Kerchow! Records, doesn’t care. 

"The root of my love begins with recording my own music when I was 16. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I stole my mom's karaoke machine, and I was recording with LOTS of reverb on that thing, and trading those tapes with my friends. What I wanna hear when I listen to a tape is authenticity. I'm not worried about how good the depth of the sound quality is. I'm just worried about hearing it all together in one place that I can fit in my pocket." —Ker-Chow Tapes co-owner Nick Dolezal.

And it’s a sentiment that’s become very common in the do-it-yourself music scenes. Talk to any band-on-a-budget about how much luck they’ve had moving CDs lately, like Alex Aguilar from the band Great Ghosts, who says, "Selling CDs at shows next to bands who are selling CDs and tapes, it just doesn't really compete. Tapes just work more with crowds, and our CDs don't compete the same way."

And what’s a band to do if they want their album to have that warm sound and chunky-tape feel? That’s where M2 Communications of Pasadena comes in. M2 Com presses cassettes, CDs, and DVDs.

It was founded by Mike McKinney in 1980, who recalls: "Back then we were doing a lot of spoken word, we did very little music on cassette. And then as the quality of the tape improved, we started doing more music cassettes, and they were able to get the tape noise way down and the fidelity much higher, so we did a lot of music ... and some voice, but now almost exclusively music."

M2COM takes the client’s master recording and puts it into a machine that creates an endless digital loop. That loop is then transferred to a reel with two miles of cassette tape on it, and then precisely separated and fed into plastic cassette shells. It takes McKinney a week to fill an order, and he makes up to 15,000 cassettes a month.

RELATED: The illustrated history of the cassette

"It's funny," McKinney says. "I thought cassettes were over and done with. We had a few clients who still offered it, but we were basically doing CDs and DVDs. And then Sean Bohrman from Burger Records called me one day and said, 'Could you do a couple hundred cassettes for us?' and I was like 'WOW!? Cassettes? Are you sure you don't mean CDs?'"

Burger Records’ catalog has grown to over 500 releases with bands from all over the world. Co-founder Lee Rickard says, "M2Com has helped create a business for us, because we were just doing this as a hobby, putting out tapes. And then it just snowballed."

RELATED: Inventor of Teddy Ruxpin, the cassette playing stuffed bear, dies

I asked McKinney why cassettes bounced back.

"Well, it's hard to say. Like I said, I thought they were dead but, the thing about a cassette that's kind of nice is, a cassette you could just stop, and it would stay right where you left it until you went back and did it again, or you could take it out, put it in a different machine. And it was always where you left it." —Mike McKinney, M2Com

And that’s the cassette’s nature. They never went away; we just had to pick them up again and do something new with them.

Some recent "pressings" by M2COM:

  • Mac DeMarco tapes for Captured Tracks, the American indie label that New Zealand's legendary Flying Nun Records has oft collaborated with on international reissues. 
  • West Covina folk-favorite MATH with the avant-garde label Juniper Tree Songs.
  • And Fullerton's up and coming garage punks Audacity's unreleased high school album Juvajive will finally be put out thanks to M2COM partnering with Cut-Rate Records.

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