Have you ever heard of “shoulder season?”

Typically, “shoulder season” is that brief window in between two seasons. Y’know, that few weeks of late summer, early fall, or spring leading into summer where weather-wise you are in between the ice cream trucks/swimming pools and the falling leaves and gourds. Home audio formats have enjoyed a few of their own “shoulder seasons” before transitioning into a new dominant medium.  

And that brings me to my beloved reel to reel tapes. Not quite as fad-worthy as 8 tracks or minidiscs, but still they had a relatively short commercial run. They began in the “mad men” era and had pretty much died off by the mid-1970s. Essentially, they are giant cassette tapes with no plastic case - some collectors call them “open reels” vs the standard cassette tape.

Home audio enthusiast finally had a way to record several of their vinyl LPs on one looooong mix tape, and other diehard fans of the format claimed that official commercial releases had a superior sound when compared to vinyl and the like. It ended up going the way of the buffalo because it was an awkward format to use (what if you broke your tape or completely unspooled it?) and records were just such a dominant format that you could never sell enough tapes and reel to reel players to take down the mighty vinyl.

So, when and why do I buy? I buy the commercial releases because they are rare, rare, rare! That’s three rares if you were counting, and as such titles by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix and others can sell for several hundred dollars per tape (depending on condition). I buy the blank ¼ tapes (and even the ones that were recorded on) because home recorders, music studios and artists still actively use them. It’s fascinating to think of this tape used in a mellotron or as a live instrument,as can be seen in this weird video of MGMT on Fallon doing a Pink Floyd cover with Bradford Cox of Deerhunter dressed as Joey Ramone playing a reel to reel as an instrument.

Now that you’ve got the inside scoop - where can you get it? As you might have already guessed, the usual suspects are the best for this. Keep your eyes peeled at local thrift shops, garage sales and auctions - these will usually mixed in with the records.