Photo by Paul Gandy.
Your dad warned you this would happen. One young north Mississippi label is finally giving the cassette a do-over.
It’s Wednesday night at Proud Larry’s in Oxford. Kieran Danielson sits at a wrought iron table underneath the staircase that leads to the apartments above the restaurant/bar/venue. A tall, slight man in his mid-twenties, Danielson is the frontman of the night’s headliner, Bonus.
He’s looking over his shoulder through the door that leads inside.
“Where’s Kate?” he asks about his girlfriend and local musician Kate Teague.
Someone else says, “Dude, that is Kate,” pointing at a girl sitting at the bar, just visible through the door.
“Then who’s that she’s talking to?”
“That’s Mario,” another says. Mario Martinez is the drummer for Bonus and Danielson’s long time friend.
“Aw man,” Danielson jokes, “Guess he’s out of the band!”
The other two at the table laugh. They are Graham Hamaker and Adam Porter, and together — along with Danielson — they make up not only the rest of Bonus but also local record label Muscle Beach Records. The three are sitting around, pre-show, drinking beer and waiting for the first of the night’s three acts to start.
Muscle Beach officially launched this year on May 10 but had been a work in progress for some time. The label started with the release of Bonus II, then went on to put out an album by Starman Jr. (fronted by Porter), and has now continued on to release albums by six different artists (with a seventh coming down the pipe).
Muscle Beach is operating in a strange time in the Oxford music scene. Earlier this year, the Cats Purring Dude Ranch — a (questionably legal) venue on the outskirts of Oxford, housed in an old Boy’s and Girl’s Club — was forcibly shut down by the property’s new owner. Somewhat similarly, local bar The Blind Pig chose not to renew its music license, and subsequently stopped hosting shows.
Muscle Beach is very much a product of Oxford. Both Starman Jr. and Bonus had early shows at the Blind Pig. Starman Jr. was the last band to play at The Dude Ranch. But they are starting to look elsewhere.
“If you look at what we’ve already put out, more than half of it is from Oxford,” Danielson said. “We’re totally down with the scene, but we’re definitely still doing our thing.”
“There was an Oxford blast in the beginning,” Hamaker said, “which was nice, for us to define ourselves as an Oxford-based label.”
Muscle Beach now boasts talent that lives in as varied locations as Tuscon, Brooklyn, Argentina and Australia.
“Those early records helped us let people know what our sound was,” said Danielson, “and now we’re attracting bands that like what we’ve already done.”
‘Cassettes harken back to a time of mix tapes and the Walkman, intimate and tangible in a way digital music isn’t, and they are portable and durable, unlike vinyl.’
The name Muscle Beach comes from Hamaker’s childhood. His grandmother owned a small island in Louisiana that they called Muscle Beach because, fittingly, it was covered in muscles. And that’s telling about the whole enterprise.
For Muscle Beach, as with so much of Indie culture, the currency is nostalgia. It permeates their aesthetic. On Bonus’ first album, the cover art is an old black and white photo of a man in horn-rimmed glasses. The first song on Muscle Beach artist Swear Tapes’ album Cherish the Cabin kicks off with a harpsichord sounding 12-string, and the whole song sounds like a lost track off Abbey Road. A haze obscures all of Muscle Beach’s music, making it sound not quite new.
Then, there’s the fact that, to date, Muscle Beach has only produced cassettes. Scenesters have been flocking back to this antiquated medium. The tape has seen an increase in overall sales for the first time since the 1990s, and it must be in large part to the rise of its use among independent musicians.
According to Forbes, the National Audio Company — the biggest producer of cassettes in the US — produced over 10 million tapes in 2014. 2015 saw a 30% increase in that number. Cassette culture is back, and it provides something that no other medium does.
For the Muscle Beach crew, the draw was something almost ineffable. Cassettes harken back to a time of mix tapes and the Walkman, intimate and tangible in a way digital music isn’t, and they are portable and durable, unlike vinyl. Cassettes have a unique role at the merch table, too.
“There’s this culture we admire,” Danielson said. “[Tapes] are fun to buy at shows, and the majority of our friends buy tapes at shows.”
“You can go to a show, stick a tape in your pocket, and go home. Regardless if you listen to it or not, it’s collectible,” Hamaker said.
Aesthetics play a big role in the choices Muscle Beach makes. “Tapes look so good now,” Porter said. “They’re like trading cards, something small and cheap… It’s cool to have them there.”
Despite all of Muscle Beach’s high-minded reasons for limiting their offerings to tapes, there is a practical one, too. Having tapes made is cheaper than having vinyl pressed, and there seems to be a consensus among the group that having CDs made is a questionable practice (a faux pas of style and authenticity, no doubt).
However, it’s called Muscle Beach Records, for a reason.
“We didn’t want to limit ourselves… or be too obscure,” said Danielson, referring to using the word ‘records’ in the moniker versus, say, ending it with ‘tapes.’ “It gives us this umbrella to do any sort of media.”
Muscle Beach is planning to release their first vinyl later this year with Tucson, AZ, based musician Casey Golden. Though it promises to be a great release, the process to get it there has been long.
“Tapes are one-fourth or fifth the cost of vinyl,” said Hamaker. “To have a vinyl made of someone, it has to be something you really want to hear on vinyl.”
Danielson said that Muscle Beach is halfway done with raising money for the vinyl, a process that can be difficult for the label. They pay for everything out of their meager sales and money left over from their personal pocketbooks.
For the owners of Muscle Beach, the label is a passion project.
“We get to work with music in our day-to-day lives,” said Hamaker. “We might not sell 10 records a week, but maybe six months from now we will.”
For now, Muscle Beach is focused on refining their sound and expanding their catalogue. Even with all their reminiscing, they are excited to grow, but in the meantime, they’d just be happy to get their first vinyl out.
Give Muscle Beach artists a spin at musclebeachrecords.bandcamp.com