How punk archivists in Calgary Preserve the fabric of music from the past
By: Reina Cowan | Art by: Michael Rancic
Decay is the natural process of destruction. It will happen to your teeth, your body, and plant matter. Eventually, your physical possessions—including art and music—will decay, too.
The average shelf life of cassette tapes is around 30 years. For vinyl, that number ranges between two and 100 years, depending on the level of meticulous and loving care. But regardless, most analog formats break down easily either naturally, through time and wear, or through human negligence: getting knocked around in moving vans or broken by friends you lend your belongings to.
Taking conscious steps to prevent breakdown is a habitual process. Every day, we take care to maintain our bodies, lives, and relationships. Ben Lines extends this same effort to preserving music. When he’s not studying or working part-time, the 21-year-old Calgary resident is running CanadianWasteland.
At its core, CanadianWasteland is a love letter to the zeitgeist of hardcore scenes past, though Lines founded the archive as an ode to Calgary hardcore after spending a summer immersed in record stores, poring over used punk records from the early- to mid-’90s and feeling the continued resonance of the creativity and political ideals expressed by the obscure bands he uncovered.
Across CanadianWasteland’s Blogspot, YouTube, and Instagram pages, Lines’ archiving habit has generated a treasure trove of lovingly ripped FLAC files, strange vinyl covers, album insert scribbles, and 1990s zine remnants. Over time, the project has become more comprehensive, highlighting some American and French music, but Lines remains focused on Calgarian and Western Canadian hardcore punk.
In 1990s Calgary, Lines notes, the hardcore punk scene was largely do-it-yourself. Accessibility to the albums that he uncovered and resonated with was very limited.
Many albums Lines discovered risked being lost to time. The vinyl began showing its age, warping on the surface. On top of that, he says, no one seemed to be holding onto the weirdest of the weird records—the ones he thought were truly cool and emblematic of the DIY ethos of building your own scenes, staging shows, and distributing punk music through zines and word of mouth.
Hardcore as a genre is born of political struggle. “There are so many good informational booklets in some of these releases that talk about issues that are still prevalent today,” says Lines. His archiving efforts give new generations an opportunity to discover the political takes expressed by these hardcore obscurities.
“There are so many good informational booklets in some of these releases that talk about issues that are still prevalent today,” says Lines. “There are so many good, refreshing takes on it.”
So how do you archive a record, anyway?
“It’s a process,” Lines says.
An initial transposition from analog to digital poses the challenge of how to make a new format feel like home to someone with an attuned ear. It’s a labour of love.
“Your record’s an analog format,” says Lines. “When your turntable plays your record and breaks down the signal, it’s completely different from what you’d listen to on your phone, listening to a digital track.”
“But it just feels really fulfilling to me. Even if not a lot of people look at my blog posts or anything, I just know that this artist, this record that I was looking for for the longest time, that I listened to every day—it’s out there in good quality and people can appreciate it the way I do.”
Lines includes a web disclaimer that any band’s materials can be taken offline at their request. But generally, the bands Lines features are so obscure that copyright isn’t an issue.
In fact, the response to CanadianWasteland has been overwhelmingly positive. Lines’ passion has led him to connecting with the people behind the music.
Post-hardcore outfit Joule, who were part of the Calgary scene from the late ’90s to early aughts, is one group that took notice.
“They put out a lot of cool stuff that basically was wiped from the internet,” Lines says. “I was kind of the first person to bring [them] back.”
Joule’s vocalist, Devin Van Buuren, reached out to Lines about his work.
“He was just kind of blown away that I even cared about it. He was really excited about it. They have some unreleased material that I might help them put out in the near future,” Lines says.
Archiving, at least within the hardcore and alternative scenes, can be a way to fight against the stagnancy of music that is doled out on modern algorithm-based platforms, like TikTok and Spotify. You’re able to uncover things that are still unique to your region, or to a specific scene.
The Calgary Cassette Preservation Society is another organization dedicated to conserving old, unique, and funky projects. Helmed by Arif Ansari, the society is now formally registered as a non-profit with the government of Alberta.
Ansari’s musical obsession came from working in radio. He cut his teeth at Calgary’s CJSW campus radio station and also played in a few bands in the 1990s. His work naturally expanded into tape-collecting. Since hard-copy tapes were out of vogue, Ansari decided to start putting them up on the internet in digital form. What first started out as a lark became serious once others latched onto the value of Ansari’s work.
“At some point, friends of mine—or people I kind of knew—started contacting me and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got some more tapes for you,’ and it pretty quickly snowballed into this large community project where it wasn’t just about me putting out the tapes,” Ansari says. “That’s when it started pivoting from me not really taking it seriously to me saying, ‘Oh, wait—this is something that people value.’”
For Ansari, the music of the ’90s was just a starting point. His collection now spans back as far as the 1950s.
What’s unique about Calgary as a music city, he notes, is its relative distance from other major cities. In Eastern Canada, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montréal are all within six hours’ drive of one another. Calgary’s next closest big city is Edmonton, three hours away and smaller than Calgary itself. “There’s an interesting commingling in Calgary, being as isolated as we are,” Ansari says.
That lets Calgary artists develop unique scenes and sounds less influenced by other regions. “You get this interesting dynamic here. It’s maybe not as connected to other cities as it could be,” says Ansari. This is especially notable in the growing “Nashville North” label for Calgary as a country-music city, but the unique regional sounds extend beyond that tag. “There’s a strong history of folk music because of the folk clubs that have been in the city for decades. And then there’s the punk and metal. There’s all that stuff.”
Both archivists’ work centres around quantity over quality. Since many of the projects they revive weren’t recorded using high-tech equipment or ever properly mastered, sometimes making an old record or cassette sound great, by today’s standards, is impossible. Holding on to the memory, or capturing the spirit of an era, for Ben and Arif, is the more important element.
“As much as those tapes might be unplayable, they’re important artifacts that need to be collected somewhere,” Ansari notes.
In Ansari’s vision of the future, his collection sits in the National Library and Archives of Canada—in a space where the public can admire and learn about the music’s history.
“There’s a physical archive that I need to figure out what to do with as well. I have all these tapes and records and posters, all sorts of stuff that I need to one day find a home for,” Ansari says.
“As goofy as they are, these old records represent someone’s art. They represent someone’s time and effort and passion, and it’s important to keep that preserved.”