The medium is the message at 1019 Records
Compared to the space age techno-wizardry of the iPod, my Sony Walkman is the portable music equivalent of a Model-T Ford. It’s so clunky that it features a belt clasp, as there’s no way you’re going to fit the plastic behemoth in any reasonably sized pocket. To give you an idea of its approximate value, I received it for free in exchange for donating blood, which my body produces at zero cost to me. Despite all this, Santa Cruz soundsmith Cole Willsea regularly releases and sells new music exclusively on cassette tapes through his label, 1019 Records. And he’s not the only one.
“As it turns out, there are a good number of tape labels around these days,” Willsea says. “There’s one in Canada called Scotch Tapes that puts out hundreds of tapes on a weekly basis, and they often sell out within days. A dude makes his living that way.”
Willsea might not be ready to quit his day job just yet, but there’s good reason to believe that his unorthodox business model has some traction. “Each tape is so cheap to produce that if I sold ’em for a buck each, I’d still be making enough profit for more tapes,” the 23-year-old UC Santa Cruz grad explains. “I’ve managed to break even, and I still have loads of tapes to sell.”
While instantaneous on-demand music has become the norm, part of the appeal of 1019 Records—named after 1019 Broadway in Santa Cruz, the cozy cottage where Willsea’s lived for the past five years—is the humility of the medium itself. Instead of a flawless digital stream of ones and zeroes, the sound quality is imperfect; the fidelity is thinner, subject to the temperament of the tape-twirling motor. For music fans accustomed to navigating graphical submenus to find exactly what they want to hear the moment they want to hear it, rewinding and fast-forwarding a cassette (or otherwise listening to the entire album end-to-end) is cumbersome. And yet Willsea, along with the people buying his tapes, find this consumer anachronism quite charming.
Like jazz fans entranced by restraint, 1019 listeners hear what they want in the lo-fi hiss. Willsea says he’s “really interested in sound as texture, the way that abstract art reflects what is commonly accepted as fine art or popular art.” Then, while handing me a copy of Anomie’s d.,.b, the first release to come out of the Broadway bedroom about a year ago, he adds with a laugh, “Truthfully, I’m kind of incapable of making normal music.”
With the demise of said band, in which Cole used a sequencer to arrange droning guitar feedback and found sounds, the soft-spoken musician immediately started numerous projects with like-minded locals. In an effort to consolidate his and his friends’ endeavors under a common name, 1019 Records was born.
Since then, the label has blossomed, offering more than 30 albums from locals like The Groggs, Young Fiction, and Willsea’s own Palm Yard, as well as distributing international artists such as Sweden’s Roundabout. Willsea also designs the packaging for each release, literally stitching together scraps of paper, cloth, and decomposing National Geographic magazines into the visual analogue of the 1019 catalog. “I just like making stuff with my hands,” Willsea smiles.
So much so, that he already has a handful of new cassettes to release in 2010, including output from members of Santa Cruz faves Man/Miracle and Room For A Ghost. “I’d like to keep doing splits with two bands per tape,” the young artist states. “The more people you have associated with each release, the more people will hear it, which fosters new collaborations and relationships between musicians and fans.”
While the zombified corpse of the old music industry groans about piracy, Willsea’s sales are picking up, perhaps because 1019 points toward a future where music is less about money and more about friendship and fun. “At some point enough people had seen the 1019 website and heard the music, that folks from out of town were asking me about putting out a tape for them,” Willsea says. “In fact, oftentimes someone will purchase a tape simply to start a conversation about their own music.”
To learn more about 1019 Records, go to 1019records.com or myspace.com/1019records.