It's April 1983 and you're strutting down the street with Dexy's Midnight Runners in your headphones. Sure, you've enjoyed their No. 1 hit single "Come On Eileen," but when it ends you're in unfamiliar territory with the rest of the Celtic soul-pop group's album. You can't skip this track with the simple controls of your Walkman. So you just keep listening – with a concentration sought after today by labels like Magnetic South Recordings.
Fast-forward to 2008: that Dexy's Midnight Runners cassette sits in a moldy basement box, along with more recently discarded formats like CD-Rs. We live in the cloud now, man.
But don't count out those hissing tapes just yet; not when Bloomington's Magnetic South Recordings and other boutique labels are still hard at work making specialty cassette releases.
"We did not start doing the label because we had a business plan for a record label. We just wanted to make records," says label co-founder and engineer John Dawson.
Label founders Dawson, Seth Mahern and Aaron Deer, all formerly of Bloomington soul-punk band John Wilkes Booze, among other individual projects, needed a way to fill the inactive time between bands and tours. Not only did they find delight in the honest charm of the analog recording process and medium, they also knew that working with the older format would make it financially easier to introduce to the world the music they loved.
"We wanted to put stuff out but we obviously didn't have hardly any money. It was either cassettes or CD-Rs, and cassettes seemed to have a lot more personality," Mahern says.
Now five years in, Magnetic South Recordings boasts a roster of tapes — and, increasingly, vinyl releases — that personify the strange breed of lo-fi psychedelic music that's been pouring out of the state for more than 30 years. Think The Dancing Cigarettes, The Gizmos, Zero Boys; bands that put Indiana on the map as a place for experimental punk music.
They've turned ears on with this year's releases of A Goodbad Man is Hard to Find by Thee Tsunamis, a self-titled LP by Thee Open Sex (of which Dawson is a member) and a recording of Apache Dropout's Bubblegum Graveyard (which was released on Chicago's Trouble in Mind and of which Mahern is a member). This Thursday, they'll be presenting these achievements of sonic delight in the form of a music revue at White Rabbit Cabaret.
Mahern, Dawson and Deer began by recording the friendship–fueled jamming that would happen so often at their quaint yellow house on the southwestside of Bloomington. Though Deer has since moved to Oakland, Calif., his connection with Magnetic South is evident in one of their latest releases — Deer's project Daring Ear's cassette Afterflash. They used old equipment that was either already around, donated or posted in the "free if you can come and get it" section of Craigslist.
Both have had the opportunity to work under Paul Mahern, Zero Boys frontman and esteemed producer — and Seth Mahern's uncle. Dawson worked as an assistant engineer on Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band's The Gospel Album and The Whole Fam Damnily which [Paul]Mahern produced, and works in the Media Preservation Initiative at Indiana University.
Their first release was a hand–duplicated Sitar Outreach Ministry cassette, closely followed by a pre–Mahern Apache Dropout cassette. Soon after, they acquired the tape duplicators that established the group as a label.
"The commercial viability was not a concern at the time. We were just doing something to keep ourselves entertained," Mahern says.
The owners noticed a group of peers emerging, like Burger Records from Fullerton, Calif. It's not as inaccessible a culture to penetrate any longer, with bands like The Flaming Lips, King Tuff and At the Drive–In releasing cassette tapes, along with hundreds of other artists. And of course, there's Indy's Joyful Noise Recordings, whose specialty box sets of cassettes for Dinosaur Jr. and other analog releases have received international attention.
"When you make something you want to have an object, not just have a Bandcamp or whatever. That's really unsatisfying for everybody," Dawson says.
New tape enthusiasts are born every day. It's cheap to get into, and while a Walkman may lack the storage capacity of even one gigabyte, the intimacy of choosing a tape to listen to, of carrying that tape around and listening to it again and again, is worthwhile to these converts.