Tapes and experimental music sit at the fringe of the mainstream music industry. One Columbia music label specializes in both. Dismal Niche is a Columbia-based cassette-tape outlet that focuses on high quality, lo-fi experimental music. Dismal Niche Tapes is the brainchild of co-founders Ben Chlapek and Matthew Crook.
The duo met during a mixtape exchange in the basement of Columbia’s KOPN radio station in 2011. Mixtape trading is a long-standing tradition in cassette-tape culture.Crook and Chlapek started their label with the hope that they could highlight that part of the local music scene.
Dismal Niche has grown to include 17 artists and bands, such as Hush Arbors, Neatly Knotted and Nevada Greene. The label will host its second music festival at small venues around the city from October 6–9.
Crook sat down with Vox to discuss how cassette tapes help DIY musicians, what he looks for in experimental music and how he and Chlapek combined the two into a business.
What was going on in Columbia that made you want to start this project?
When we started, Columbia was in a transition. It kind of always is as far as the music scene goes. It’s a pretty transient town. A lot of people come here for college and then leave. We had a DIY space where a lot of bands were playing and shows were happening (at the Hair Hole, located at 104 Orr St. It was torn down in 2013). That was demolished to make way for more student housing, so when we started Dismal Niche, we felt like we needed to capture what was happening at the moment before it was demolished and everybody was gone.
Do you hope cassettes make a comeback?
As far as a cassette-tape comeback, I don’t think we were looking to tap into any kind of trendy markets or anything to make a quick buck. That’s never been the goal. We wanted to release music from artists around town and regionally.
Why do tapes continue to be the medium of choice among experimental artists?
It’s a good way for bands to release things in a way that’s financially feasible. As a touring DIY musician, I found that people buy tons of tapes. It’s a really good way to sustain yourself while you’re on tour. They cost about $1.50–$2 apiece to make and then you can sell those on the road, so even if you don’t sell them, it’s not like you’re out a whole lot. They have a durable quality that CDs don’t. They also have a portable quality that records don’t.
How did you and Chlapek turn the project into a successful venture?
We both had a lot of energy to make this happen. Ben’s a great designer. That’s what he does for a living in Chicago. I have good, gregarious people skills and a passion to get out and do music and help people out.
Which artists first drew you to the experimental music genre?
I grew up on Neil Young. The deeper you dig into his catalog, the more experimental he gets. I’ve always really liked the soundtracks to old spaghetti Western movies that my dad would watch like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and stuff like that. The Ennio Morricone soundtracks and Ennio Morricone’s music were a huge influence.
What qualities do you look for to separate experimental music from what some may consider just weird?
I wouldn’t say I’m looking for any one thing in particular. I guess I’m drawn to things with cadences that a lot of times don’t really agree with Western standards of music: songs that go on way too long, wander and don’t really seem to have structure or songs that seem to have a structure that don’t agree with standard Western and pop music. I just like things that move me in a deeper way rather than just nodding my head to it.