The cassette tape, an antiquated medium to most, has a strangely relevant history in China. Following the country’s economic opening in the late ’70s, Chinese ears got their first taste of many forms of Western music via dakou, illicitly traded tapes marked for destruction but smuggled into the Mainland for resale:
By the time independent music labels started forming in China, CD was the medium of choice, and of course now all bow to the digital distribution gods. But the cassette has hung on in niche circles within China, usually labor of love, DIY operations focusing on particular sub-genres. Here’s a list of 10 good ones I wrote a while back.
One of the most prolific is Nasty Wizard Recordings, a small collective of artists from the US and UK who have over a decade of experience on the front lines of Beijing’s underground music frontiers between them. Last weekend, Nasty Wizard hosted the first official China event for Cassette Store Day, a holiday I’m sure you didn’t know existed. I caught up with Dann Gaymer, one of Nasty Wizard’s founders, to talk about why this little plastic box still resonates so strongly in certain corners of underground culture today.
Dann Gaymer (left) and Nasty Wizard co-founder Michael Cupoli
Why did you want to launch Nasty Wizard as a cassette label? What about the format appeals to you?
I enjoy the cassette format because it adds a different sound — or degrades the sound, to be specific — which in some instances adds a warmth to the music. While it is more lo-fi than vinyl it is also more open, in that anyone can buy a bunch of blank tapes and a player and start hand-dubbing music on to them. I think that’s important in the same way zines are important: it’s a low entry point financially, which makes it open to more people. I also enjoy how artwork looks on them.
We launched with cassettes because we had an opportunity to do them in a way that wouldn’t break our backs to do small runs. This meant that we could release more absurdist music that we probably wouldn’t if were pressing 300 vinyl discs or 200 CDs in nicely printed sleeves. However, the reason it’s not called Nasty Wizard Tapes is we aren’t tied to one format. As well as cassettes we’ve done CDs, 3 1/2″ floppy disks, and we’re about to do VHS tapes with a USB card. Oh, and Bandcamp so people can actually listen to this stuff.
How popular are cassettes in China in your experience? Are most of your sales in China or international?
Not very popular, but getting better. I’m gauging that on the increasing amount of labels and bands putting out cassettes and improved recognition amongst artists and fans. I guess it comes down to measures of success: Third Man Records can reissue a White Stripes album on tape and sell thousands of copies, but if you can shift 10 tapes of harsh noise you hand-dubbed yourself and you’re happy with that, then you’re successful. We sell quite a bit at merch tables at our events in China, and we’re also getting people hitting us online. We also get orders for overseas, which is increasing.
How did you get involved with Cassette Store Day this year? What all did you do in Beijing in connection with it?
I first become aware of Cassette Store Day four years ago when my friends from [cassette label] 87FEI87 organized a low-key event in Beijing. Then in 2015 and 2016 we organized events and had releases, but we weren’t “officially” part of CSD. This year we got in touch way in advance and pitched to them that China has a growing tape scene that should be represented. They agreed.
“China has a growing tape scene that should be represented”
As “official” representatives we did a number of things. Following the CSD recipe we made a list of tapes both old and new from various labels that we then sent to shops and organizers. We also reached out to larger labels to try and get them onboard to release some tapes. That was interesting because it was a reminder of how unique the musical landscape and industry are in China — just because something works in Europe doesn’t mean it will work here.
There aren’t that many record shops to start off with, and larger labels don’t really care as their money isn’t in selling physical copies anyway. However, we did learn about a bunch of other people doing tapes, and we were able to coordinate with events in Shanghai and Guangzhou, so it was bigger than just Nasty Wizard doing an event in the capital.
On the Beijing side we organized an all-day event at YUE Space that included a market with twenty vendors including food, clothing, artwork, handicrafts, jewelry, and of course tapes, with electronic and folk performances going on including our very own Noise Arcade. We repressed some of our tapes that were out of stock and reduxed one, and it was also the official release for Noise Arcade’s tape/floppy disk release and Floood’s new tape on 87FEI87.
In the end it was kind of a celebration of not just tapes but the DIY ethos of creating on a small scale and sharing with like-minded people. In the evening the market was cleared and we had a full-on rock show, spilt beer and pogoing kind of vibes. I hope next year we can get some interest from more labels and link up with folks in South Korea, Japan, and SE Asia to get a Kula Ring of tapes going down.
What has your most popular release been?
Hands down our China Shoegaze Compilation and Asian Shoegaze Compilation Vol.1, both of which were [co-founder] William Griffith’s pet projects. People dig those so hard in China and abroad, which is amazing, as our whole aim is to connect the “dots” between different people and places. When somebody in rural Ireland hits us up because they’re so amped on those bands, it makes me feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Do you think there are any elements of cassette culture that resonate differently in China vs the West?
That’s a great question and one that I can only speculate on. What I know from having spoken to various people is that tapes played an important role after the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and the opening up of China in the ’80s, especially with the influx of dakou tapes. Isn’t there a story about Xie Yugang of [Dalian band] Wang Wen getting hold of a dakou cassette of Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and that completely blowing his mind?
“Perhaps for younger people it’s a kind of retro kick, but back to an imagined past. The ’80s were very different in China compared to what was going on elsewhere.”
So for some people there is perhaps a nostalgia towards tapes, back to a different time before the Internet, when bands like Brain Failure‘s first recordings weren’t on Douban but instead on a tape because that’s what was accessible to them. Perhaps for younger people it’s a kind of retro kick, but back to an imagined past. The ’80s were very different in China compared to what was going on elsewhere. In a similar way I think vinyl in China is very interesting, is it nostalgia for a past that existed elsewhere?
Maybe people just like collecting things. We shouldn’t, there are landfill sites the size of small countries filled with stuff people thought they wanted forever. Yet we do. Maybe it gives them something to talk about, like when someone comes to your house and checks out the books on your shelf or a piece of art on your wall. It’s a way of starting a conversation about something you can share.
All photos courtesy Nasty Wizard co-founder William Griffith/LiveBeijingMusic