The Oh Sees’ latest release is a 12-album box set in an unexpected format: 8-track tapes. It’s the culmination of a year-long effort by Seattle-based DIY label 5Seven Records, which restored vintage 8-track tapes and transformed them into albums from musician John Dwyer’s bands, variously known as Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, and OCS.
8-track tapes are a long-retired magnetic tape audio format that predates the cassette and was used as a more portable alternative to vinyl records to play in cars and on boomboxes. Though cassettes are having a second life through sales of older albums and the DIY noise scene, 8-tracks have been out of the market since the early 1980s and haven’t really made a comeback in stores like Urban Outfitters, which sells CDs, vinyls, and cassettes.
No manufacturers make 8-track tapes today, so the entire box set had to be created by tracking down existing tapes and then turning them into new releases. 5Seven Records founder Maximiliano (who prefers not to disclose his last name) brought together more than a dozen artists and designers to create the box sets from scratch. Together, they worked on everything from creating art for the tape covers, making an accompanying zine, and crafting a custom-fit box to hunting for specific colors of 8-track tapes and restoring them to a listenable quality.
5Seven Records is more akin to an art collective than a music label. It’s run by volunteers around the world to release music for bands they want to support on unconventional formats like floppys, video game cartridges, and VHS tapes. The 8-track project initially came about as a one-off experiment by Maximiliano to gift to the Oh Sees when they stopped in Seattle on their tour. After stumbling across 8-track tapes in a 25 cent bin at a local record store, he made several custom-labeled 8-track albums with the band’s music recorded onto it and dropped it off at their merch table the night of the concert. Dwyer loved the tapes and asked Maximiliano if he would be willing to make an official release for the band.
“I obviously instantly said yes,” Maximiliano tells The Verge via email. “Although I didn’t know the first thing about how to make a music release.”
Over the next year, Maximiliano brought together volunteers to help 5Seven Records make the project a reality. That included Dwyer as well as illustrator Elzo Durt who’s designed album covers for the Oh Sees.
“I am pretty sure that Putrifiers II is the first and last commercially recorded album put onto a transparent 8-track tape.”
The mission was to create 100 box sets for the limited run, which meant they needed 1,200 8-track cartridges to restore and record onto. To complicate things further, each of the 12 cartridges per set was designed to be a different color. Colors like red, blue, and black were pretty common finds in dollar bins at record shops and thrift stores, but other colors like lime green and orange were exceptionally rare. Eventually, they found the cartridges they needed by recruiting a dozen “8-track aficionados” across the country to search through estate sales and records stores for the missing colors.
“We started finding out that different bands tended to be on certain cart colors, for example Robin Trower or Jethro Tull albums tended to be on lime green carts, so we would look online for those bands,” Maximiliano says.
Transparent cartridges were the trickiest to find. They couldn’t find any that were made commercially for an album, and the crew only found one company that had manufactured them. Eventually, they got lucky and came across a box of 120 still-sealed transparent cartridges up for sale in Israel on eBay. “I am pretty sure that Putrifiers II is the first and last commercially recorded album put onto a transparent 8-track tape,” Maximiliano said.
It took the group of volunteers over six months to find all of the old carts needed for the release.
Acquiring 1,200 tapes was a considerable feat for the DIY music release, but an even more time-consuming and delicate step remained: each cart had to be cleaned, taken apart, repaired, put back together, and dubbed individually by hand. Most of the tapes also had to be cut to fit the length of each album.
Though the group was able to repurpose old tapes for their project, the whole set’s packaging needed to be created new. There was no record of there ever being an 8-track case for 12 tapes, never mind being able to find a hundred of them. So Maximiliano reached out to several printing and manufacturing companies until he found Stoughton Printing in Los Angeles, which happened to have some huge fans of the Oh Sees and agreed to take on the project.
Another challenge they came across was that different record labels would have different molds for their cartridges, so tapes wouldn’t fit correctly in each slot of the box set. After sending six prototypes back and forth in the mail, the final result was a colorful box set that represented the aesthetic of both the music and the era of the 8-track tape. And the cartridges fit snugly, too.
Despite the DIY nature of the project, the final product is a professionally crafted result that reflects the dedication and precision the artists put into the entire box set. The ‘70s-inspired lettering, art, and design of the labels on the cartridges go the extra mile in making the release seamlessly appropriate for the format.
Copies of the handmade box set are now sold out. They were sold for $420 each, priced to cover the cost of creating each unit.
For buyers, these releases may be more of a way to show that they love the band than something they actually want to listen to. A study in 2016 found that about half of the people who buy vinyl records don’t even listen to them. With streaming and downloads being the way that most people consume music now, a tangible album you can hold in your hand is more of an avatar or trophy for being a fan of an artist. In this case, knowing each tape was handmade, cut, and dubbed to fit the album length brings back the not-so-long-forgotten art of physical media and the work the went into it.