Why Every Tinyamp Tape Is Truly One of a Kind

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House venues are unofficial by nature. There are no real rules at a house show other than to respect each other and the space. There are no tickets, only donations. There's no promotion, no bar, no third-party marketing team. What is created right then and there at each show is a one-of-a-kind experience. Local limited-run cassette-tape imprint Tinyamp Records, not coincidentally, has a similar approach. The label, run by musicians Hunter Dragon and Madeline Johnston, was the direct result of the two crossing paths at house shows. "I had seen Maddie play around the same time I had played a show at her house; we just agreed right off the bat that we should start a band together," says Dragon. Johnston -- who at the time had been playing around Denver under the name Mariposa -- agreed, and the two created a musical project, Year of the Dragonfly. They released their first record, Pupil, in late 2011 on Tinyamp, which they started at the same time.

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These days, recordings are sent to a company to be duplicated onto cassette, but in the beginning, Tinyamp was as DIY as it gets: It was a home operation consisting of a dozen tape duplicators that required hours of manual button-pushing to copy each tape. But Dragon says that was all part of the plan. "CDs really suck, and digital files are just ones and zeros; you can't touch that. When we started the label, literally everything was done one at a time, in a one-to-one ratio: play-record, play-record, play-record, play-record. All the tapes would shut off in a sequential order -- bang, bang, bang, bang."

Johnston and Dragon enjoyed the process so much, they decided they wanted to do it with their friends' music, too. "It started as, 'Let's make some cassettes of this music we made together for fun.' Then we just loved it so much we thought, 'Hey, we can do this for other people, too,'" says Johnston. Since then, Tinyamp has created a tiny community all its own, producing cassette tapes by locals like Sara Century and the Bipedal Approach, as well as national artists like Lady Uranium and C.J. Boyd. Compilation albums, too, are a big part of Tinyamp's identity as a label. They not only involve a wide range of artists, but often collaborations between them, which Johnston says is at the heart of why Tinyamp exists.

Even though the tapes are now copied by an outside source and participating artists provide their own recorded material, Tinyamp remains a small, in-house operation. All album art is done by Johnston, and tape releases are limited to around 100. Artists get to sell their portion of the tapes and keep the money; Tinyamp sells the rest, some at shows the label sets up and the others online. Proceeds from those sales go toward future releases.

So in this age of ones and zeros, why does Tinyamp Records choose cassette tapes, anyway? "It's not an inferior medium whatsoever," says Dragon. "I love the sound quality of it; I love the compression it has; I love the warble." And tapes, which are inexpensive and easy to create, align with one of the guiding principles of the label: You don't have to have a lot of money to make art. "It was kind of the idea behind the name Tinyamp as well," he adds. "Not that everyone had to have these tiny amps, but all our friends weren't at a level where they were even playing a big venue, you know? You're playing in each other's living rooms. You're sleeping on the floor and loving it. I think there's a lot of purity in that."

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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