It was 2016 and Joey Lucas had been listening to a digital copy of an album called Hustle Warfare 3, by Memphis hip-hop artist Black Smurf.
There was no physical version of the record, which bothered Lucas. He wanted a copy of Hustle Warfare 3 to call his own, a physical object he could hold and show to his friends. A longtime fan of audiocassettes, he and a buddy looked into getting the album on tape.
"We found out how cheap it was to actually manufacture a tape and just went for it," says 42-year-old Lucas on an April afternoon at Pizza D' Action in Little Rock. He contacted Black Smurf via Instagram and reached an agreement with the rapper to produce 100 copies of the album on tape.
"I just kind of did it for fun," Lucas says. "He was my favorite artist at the time, and I just really wanted to put out something physically."
Hustle Warfare 3 became the debut release on Sleepcvlt, Lucas' Little Rock-based cassette-only label.
"I had to order 100 copies of them," says the soft-spoken Lucas, who is wearing shorts, a Godflesh T-shirt and cap with the bill flipped up. "I didn't even care if any of them sold, I just wanted a physical copy."
They did sell, though, as have many of Sleepcvlt's subsequent titles.
"I've had 18 releases in the past year and I've sold out of over half of them," Lucas says. "It has really surprised me."
The label specializes in underground rap and has released albums by Lil Xan, Chxpo, Purpdogg, Crimewave, Lil Toenail, Gizmo, Yung Bans, Horse Head, Little Rock ambient, electronic project Liquid Skulls and others. Lucas has also recently branched out into metal, with tapes coming in June from central Arkansas headbangers Rwake.
Christopher Terry, Rwake lead singer, says the band's first album, 2002's Hell Is a Door to the Sun, will make its cassette debut on Sleepcvlt.
"I started following his label on Instagram," Terry says. "His presentation is amazing. It's kind of old school, and I still buy cassettes. I like them."
A typical Sleepcvlt (say "Sleep cult") release is a run of 100 tapes of a previously released album. Half go to the artists, who often sell them at shows, while Lucas sells the other half at $10 apiece through his Instagram account -- instagram.com/sleepcvlt.tapes/ -- or at online music marketplace discogs.com.
That limited run adds to the exclusivity of the releases, Lucas says, and makes them coveted among completist fans.
His marketing approach is strictly low-key. He doesn't tweet or use Facebook and the only reason he started his Instagram account was to reach Black Smurf.
"I hate social media. Instagram is the easiest for me," he says. "If someone orders on Instagram, I actually talk to them. I spend time interacting with them. I get a lot of repeat customers that way."
About 60 percent of his business comes from overseas, he says: "No one in Little Rock has ever bought a tape from me as far as mail-order goes. I've had friends say 'here's $10' for a tape, but most of my orders are from places like Japan, Slovenia, the Czech Republic. About 80 percent of my international orders go to Germany."
There are two Memphis stores, Shangri-la Records and the skateboard shop VHS Memphis, that sell his cassette tapes. And they are also sold at Zion's Gate Records in Seattle.
The pocket-size cassettes are making a modest comeback among a niche of music fans who want something more tangible than a Spotify stream or a download, but cheaper than a new vinyl record, which can be $20 or more.
In January, Billboard reported that cassette sales grew to 174,000 in 2017, a 35 percent increase over 2016 and propelled by the release of soundtracks from the Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise.
Granted, that is but a speck of space dust in the vast music sales universe -- just 0.10 percent of all albums sold, Billboard says -- but ground is being gained and mainstream artists like Lana Del Ray, Eminem and Taylor Swift are just a few who have recently released music on cassette. Popular titles by legacy acts such as Nirvana and Prince, whose older fans probably first bought Nevermind or 1999 on tape back in the day, have also seen recent cassette re-releases.
John Miller of Shangri-La, the Memphis record store, says he first noticed cassettes rolling back onto the indie rock scene a few years ago: "It's really come back in the past five to eight years."
He recalls a bill featuring bands several years ago at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, where "every band in that showcase was on labels that did cassettes. That's when I realized how big of a deal it was."
Miller cites California label Burger Records, which started releasing cassettes in 2007, as a forerunner in the indie market.
"They do a lot of cassette releases, but also Fat Possum in Oxford, Miss., has been doing cassette releases. A lot of the big indie labels are starting to do cassette releases again. It definitely seems to be on the rise. I wouldn't say it's on par with vinyl, but we are certainly selling more cassettes than I would have thought."
And large retailers such as Urban Outfitters are now selling albums on cassette by the likes of Selena Gomez, Lil Uzi Vert, J. Cole, Bad Religion, The 1975, Charlie XCX and others.
For Lucas, all this mainstream attention reinforces his stance that cassettes aren't dead.
"What I'm doing is viable," he says. "It's being proven by people on a bigger scale than I am."
Lucas got his first cassettes -- Tears for Fears' Songs From the Big Chair and the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill -- from his mom. He has been a tapehead ever since.
"I played those two nonstop for years until I could afford to buy my own music," he says. "I was also using little tape recorders to record music off the radio. I would make my own mixtapes, and that's how my love affair with cassette tapes started and never ended, really."
At Southwest Junior High School in Little Rock, he discovered punk rock via a Minor Threat tape given to him by a friend. The first tape he bought with his own dough was a used copy of the Misfits' Walk Among Us from Been Around Records in Little Rock.
"I'd never heard the Misfits, but I saw a kid wearing [a Misfits] T-shirt at school and figured that's got to be good," he says.
He promoted punk shows in Little Rock and later discovered underground rap subgenres like trap and witchhouse, which is what makes up the bulk of Sleepcvlt's catalog to date.
"When I started listening to this, I thought it was pretty much the only music that was interesting," he says. "It was stuff that wasn't really contained within any rules."
For Lucas, tapes are nostalgic and a matter of personal preference. They're portable and cheaper than new vinyl. As a label owner it's a natural fit.
"I have a pretty ridiculous tape collection, he says. "It's the format I like most. I actually own an old 1999 Volvo that has a cassette player and I always carry cassettes with me. Vinyl is very expensive to buy and produce and CDs are almost dead at this point."
Sure, there is streaming and downloading, but he also wants to produce a physical object.
"It's a viable and fun way to listen to music, to actually look at something and have it in your hands versus just looking at it on the screen," he says. "A lot of people like to have something they can look at and show their friends."
So how are people listening to all these cassettes they're buying?
Lucas says some of his customers have reported finding tape players at second-hand stores and pawn shops.
Amazon, Target, Walmart, Best Buy and other retailers all have players ranging from small portable ones to larger models listed online. There are also cassette decks for cars from companies like Crutchfield.
"I've gotten a lot of requests about selling tape players," Lucas says. "I might look into it."
His day job is as a screen printer, but Lucas says Sleepcvlt is growing, perhaps to the point where it could become a full-time gig, one where he could release music specifically made for the label.
In the meantime, he's planning to issue tapes from Xavier Wulf and Ramirez soon, as well as Rwake.
"I believe there are hundreds of thousands of people out there just like me who just love the format," he says. "I feel like it could grow indefinitely."
Packages filled with cassettes are ready to be shipped to Sleepcvlt customers.
Style on 05/15/2018
Print Headline: Recording revival: Audiocassettes are back in vogue at local record label