Al Margolis is mulling over a new idea for how he's going to release his music in the near future: with stuff that doesn't contain music at all. By phone, the New York-based veteran DIY sound artist (aka If, Bwana) and improviser says that he's considering making various objets d'art, if you will, that people could buy just so that there's a physical something. The purchase would include a download code for acquiring digital files.
"No one's buying anything," Margolis says with a quick laugh, echoing what Billboard reported in January: that 2013 represented the first decline in digital music sales since iTunes was launched in 2003. Margolis comes to Red Room at Normal's Books and Records this weekend with Tough Day Tubing, the free-improv ensemble he plays in with reeds player Steve Norton and multimedia artist Walter Wright. (Underground impresario Crank Sturgeon, who typically plays in the unit, isn't able to make this tour.)
"And no one's especially buying my stuff physically," he continues. "So the good thing about the internet is easy access to stuff. The bad thing is that everyone is empowered, so now everything has to be special to each person. So I may start thinking that way with my music; I may put it up online and someone can buy artwork and each one will have a code—because you don't really give a shit about how you get the music, you just want the piece of artwork. Here's a piece of toilet paper with a painting on it. This is the cover."
He laughs again, this time more heartily, and it's easy to understand why: Margolis has been an active part of underground music since the 1980s, when his Sound of Pig cassette label was one of many hubs in a wide-reaching but decentralized network that produced, manufactured, and distributed art completely outside of the so-called "music industry." He's a part of that culture. He's seen the fall of the cassette and rise of the CD, ending Sound of Pig in the late 1980s and starting Pogus Productions, which chiefly releases CDs, in the early '90s. He's seen the fall of the CD and rise of the MP3. And he's witnessed the return of cassette culture over the past decade, not simply the niche-market reissue that has reintroduced underappreciated cassette output from earlier eras—such as 1977's Dennis Duck Goes Disco that Poo-bah Records reissued in 2006 and the Broken Flag: A Retrospective 1982-1985 five-CD boxset that Vinyl-on-Demand issued in 2007—but also the emergence of labels issuing music on cassette, such as Tricot in College Park and Baltimore's Culture Dealer, operated by Mike Collins (the former Run DMT, the current, sublime Salvia Plath) which put out the short-lived One Hitter Wonder series of song-poems. Local labels such as Friends Records and Spleen Coffin have put out some great music on tapes alongside their vinyl and CD releases as well.
Brain-massaging guitarist and writer Alan Licht brought up the Dennis Duck and Broken Flag reissues in a 2007 article he penned about cassette culture for Modern Painters. In 2011 critic Hua Hsu meditated on the cassette's reemergence in an essay for Artforum, and in 2009 Rhizome.org, the site run by the new media arts organization of the same name, posted a list of 101 cassette labels. Around the same time, the format's return was discussed by more mainstream music writers at The Guardian, Paste magazine, and Pitchfork.
The cassette these days sits somewhere between these two poles, between art commodity and cool format, so much so that it's easy to become a bit cynical that, for some consumers, the interest isn't in the music but what it's on. Margolis says that over the years he's dealt with people who say they don't buy CDs, only vinyl, and recently he's come across a few who say they don't buy vinyl, only cassettes. Not everybody does this, mind you, nor are such format fetishists the majority. But it is an odd thing for anybody who has invested any significant portion of his life to music to encounter: to cherish stuff over sound.
"These things are just delivery systems," Margolis adds. "They're just the way of getting the music."
Margolis' extensive career is a testament to sounds trumping stuff. He studied a little bit of guitar and violin in New York public schools in the 1960s and '70s, but it wasn't until he started reading OP magazine—the big-eared fanzine of independent music published by John Foster that ran for 26 issues (each one named after a letter in the alphabet) from 1979-'84—that he became exposed to the do-it-yourself attitude that cassette labels documented and celebrated.
"When I was growing up, it was a day where musicians were musicians, and if you weren't a good guitar player, you weren't in a band," he says. "This was pre-DIY, pre-punk."
OP exposed him to cassette releases, which he started buying and which inspired him to start his own label. In 1984 he bought a Fostex X15 four-track cassette recorder, and soon both his Sound of Pig label and If, Bwana were born. If, Bwana'sFreudian Slip, from 1984, is roughly a half-hour of percolating electronics and looping drones, with traces of spoken parts and other melodies lurking in the background of the mix. It's accessible noise art, like an intimate take on Throbbing Gristle extremity or a more personally engaging take on INA-GRM musique concrète, the results of one person finding his way with the tools available to him.
"It wasn't about making money," he says of his early work. "It was about making music and making something that you heard in your head."
Ever since, he's nurtured those head sounds, composing and performing song(ish) pieces as If, Bwana and improvising under his name. Earlier this year, the Toronto label Inyrdisk released a three-CD-R set to celebrate Margolis' 30 years as If, Bwana, and he says a Spanish label is putting out a three-cassette set of different If, Bwana material soon too. He steadily works on new material and maintains a few collaborations—with Montreal-based experimental musician Doug Van Nort and veteran sound artist Tom Hamilton, who used to work with the late Robert Ashley—which Margolis describes as "circular, incestuous, spiraling inward and outward, sort of like DNA." They send each other files of ideas and music, taking it in and responding to it, back and forth.
The process is in many ways a faster version of the old days when artists traded cassettes by mail; the internet makes everything faster. And so while this digital mainline has turned us all into high-maintenance consumers, it has started to connect new generations of underground-art curious to their progenitors.
"The internet has been good for hauling up all the stuff from beyond," Margolis says. Like every new indie band under the sun, Margolis maintains a Bandcamp page for If, Bwana music, and many old tape labels, such as Hal McGee's Cause and Effect Cassette Distribution Service tapes, can be found via the online music store as well. "If you look at the early 1980s and the first cassette network, I don't know if anyone knew much about it—if we stopped, no one would have noticed. But since the internet [came about], there are lots of people who know about this stuff and [are] looking into this [community]. It's definitely expanded." ?
Tough Day Tubing plays the Red Room at Normal's Books and Records March 15 with Bromp Treb and Jenny Gräf. For more information, visit redroom.org.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Walter Wright as Walter White. City Paper regrets the error.