Harley Young visits the Afflecks-based music shop that has been single-handedly reviving cassettes in Manchester and beyond
“We started around four years ago in a tiny unit around the corner over there,” said Borja, co-owner of Mars Tapes, as he gestured towards another corner of the independent haven of gadgets and gizmos that is Afflecks. “We’ve managed to expand three times since.” he added, proudly.
Mars Tapes is the unassuming independent cassette shop born from the brains of three friends; Alex, Borja and Giorgio. You’ll find it nestled in a corner at the far end of the third floor of Afflecks Palace in the Northern Quarter. And, if you don’t know where that is, can you really call yourself a Manc? Probably not.
People like the idea of coming here. They say ‘This shop is so cool’. Sometimes, they don’t even buy anything but they think it’s a nice place to be.
Of course, there’s other places in the UK that you’ll find tapes if you search hard enough. Charity shops, car boot sales, or your gran’s spare room, for example. But Mars Tapes is the only dedicated shop you’ll find nationwide…and that’s a pretty cool claim to fame to have.
“People like the idea of coming here. They say ‘This shop is so cool’. Sometimes they don’t even buy anything but they think it’s a nice place to be.”
Specialists in stocking: new releases as well as second-hand and blank cassettes; Walkmans and home stereos; and running their own label Sour Grapes Records, Mars Tapes are the last living cassette shop in the UK. The lone rangers out on the wild frontier of the music-selling scene of their kind.
In the beginning, the trio decided to start trading tapes as it was one of the cheaper ways to format and sell music. However, they quickly realised that a lot of artists and bands were also leaning towards releasing their albums on cassette, and that it was becoming an increasingly popular medium amongst certain genres; especially the likes of Hip Hop, Metal and Manchester-born artists and bands, of course.
“As a record label, the three of us wanted to be part of the music scene in Manchester. We’re all from different parts of the world - I’m from Italy, Borja is from Spain, and Alex is from the Middle East - so we really wanted to work with local musicians and artists, put on gigs and stuff like that. We thought it was only right to release something physical. Cassettes were the cheapest, most affordable form of music to make and to buy,” chimed in Giorgio, fellow Mars Tapes owner and cassette fanatic.
“I think also, that way, we found that we could do everything ourselves - that helps. If you release a vinyl you’re relying on two, maybe three different suppliers. We do everything, here, from the shop.” added Borja.
In terms of the clientele at Mars Tapes, it’s a real mix (see what I did there?).
“Some people come in because they’re just curious - they don’t know anything but they want to find out more. And then we’ve got other customers who are collectors and they really know their stuff and what they’re looking for. These come to us with very specific questions. We also get people coming in just to get bank tapes to record their own music on.” explained Borja.
“That’s another good thing about cassettes,” added Giorgio. “You can record with them, too. Some small recording studios buy four-track or eight-track tapes to make music with.”
The Mars Tapes trio believe that there’s a more dynamic range that comes with listening to a cassette over listening to music straight from your phone on Spotify or even vinyl records for that matter.
“[Tapes] are famously regarded as not being very good, but I think it all depends on the quality of the player as well as the quality of the tape. It’s the same for vinyl records. If you have a tiny £20 player it’s not going to sound as good as if you had the proper set-up,” said Borja, adding that it’s an undisputedly “iconic” sound regardless of whether you like it or not.
But surely it’s only 80s and 90s tracks you’ll find at Mars Tapes, right? Wrong. In fact, Giorgio has noticed a lot of younger bands opting to release their music on tape.
“As well as selling Walkmans almost every day to the younger generations, bands are drawn to cassettes because it’s affordable for them to run a release on tape and bring it on tour to sell for five or six pounds as opposed to a vinyl that costs more to press.” said Giorgio.
“We were discussing a while ago how many people really listen to a vinyl after they buy it from a band when they’ve been to their gig. So, you buy the record because you want to support the band, but are you really gonna sit down and listen to it? Sometimes, it’s more like having the merchandise for them instead.”
Over the past four years, Mars Tapes has managed to get its hands on a number of rare cassettes from the likes of Joy Division as well as demos from Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus’ indie record label, Factory Records.
The resurgence of retro gadgets and TV shows that aim to be nostalgic has helped no end with the revival of tapes, believes Giorgio. “When Stranger Things came out, the latest one, we had a lot of people asking for Kate Bush tapes.” he chuckled.
“There’s a local band called Wax Head that is getting more and more popular. A lot of people that go to their gigs then come here for their tapes.” added Borja.
There’s also the potential of intimate live events in the pipeline, but you’ll have to keep a keen eye on their socials to find out more about that.
Mars Tapes, 3rd Floor, Afflecks, Church St, 52, Manchester M4 1PW
Follow Harley Young on Twitter @Harley__Young
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