Dear Concerned Employees is the latest item from Rinus van Alebeek and his Staaltape label. It’s a high-concept release, in a low-key sort of way. Rinus read a real-life news story about an incident in North Carolina at the Duke Energy Building. Apparently the police had been called because a suspicious-looking package had arrived. Employees were evacuated, traffic was stopped. The package turned out to be a cassette tape. False alarm.
I suppose any story with a cassette tape at its heart will resonate personally with Rinus. The last time he did it was with the Kylie Golden Remix release, to mark the occasion when global pop star Kyle Minogue’s record company put out her new album on cassette. For one thing, he wanted to remind the world that neither she nor BMG invented the cassette, yet they acted as though they had, and it was a “novelty” item for the jaded audience. With the Duke Energy incident, the chance was evidently too good to miss, and Rinus invited the same contributors who made the Kylie Golden item to add their contribution to this release. The brief was that they were just given five minutes of space in which to offer a comforting message, words of hope, or something like that; if Americans are now so paranoid that every innocent gesture seems like a terrorist threat to them, maybe a small gesture of compassion is the best we can do. Never one to shy from interacting with the world through mail-art, Rinus actually sent a copy of the results of this experiment to the employees at Duke Energy, with a letter attempting to express condolences; “a tape brought a message of fear”, begins the enclosed letter, by way of explanation. Heaven knows how the staff at Duke reacted to this inexplicable delivery, especially as the cover of the cassette (coloured in an alarming bright orange) is not far away from a newsprint blackmail letter.
With contributions from Taco Bong, Mrs. Mangle, El Tonto Bing Bang, The New Plastic People, and others with zany alias names, the tape has been edited and sequenced by Rinus in his usual deft and delicate fashion. Muzak, new age relaxation tapes, talks about dolphins, corporate pep talk messages, inaudible spoken word – these are among the contents, everything segued so it’s hard to know where one thing starts and another ends. It’s both comforting and slightly disturbing; nothing is really explained. The music episodes would probably be bland and innocuous in any other context, but here they become quite surreal and almost transcendent. The muzak is oddly warm, not sterile; I often had the impression of being in a friendly hotel, where the TV is constantly beaming up-beat messages. At best, maybe Rinus builds imaginary hotels full of friends who can meet up.
There’s room for being slightly subversive too, though. One of the sampled relaxation tapes is by Steve Coogan, taken from his Alan Partridge show; this material was explicitly designed to undermine this self-important aspect of our culture, as well as to raise a laugh in keeping with the delusional nature of the character. Recycling it here, along with the other po-faced self-improvement and learning tape fragments that have ended up in the mix, suggest strongly that some of the contributors could not resist sniggering at this side of American corporate culture, the deadly seriousness with which business people and yuppies live by these mindless “yes I can” shibboleths. If I am right, at least the satire is gentle and not cruelly done.
I myself have been a concerned employee for too long now, and not just because I heard a message of fear (although I do hear them). I think this is just something that jobs do to you. In my position, I can tell you I personally drew some succour from this strange tape, described by Rinus as “another tear jerker”. From 15th January 2019; also perhaps the last cassette before the label took its “new direction”.