Cassette Tapes Are Almost Cool Again
Image via Frédéric Bisson/Flickr
Tapes are due for a midlife crisis. Invented in 1963 by Lou Ottens and later introduced at the Funkausstellung radio exhibition in Berlin, compact cassettes would go on to become the most prevalent form of prerecorded music from 1983, when they began outselling records, until 1991, when the CD became the most popular medium.
Tapes were undeniably an iconic part of music culture for several decades during the height of physical musical sales and distribution. And as the technology turns 50 this month, is anyone paying attention?
When it comes to romance, music critic Rob Sheffield writes in Love Is A Mixtape, cassettes "wipe the floor with MP3s." This is about neither superstition nor nostalgia, he adds.
Sheffield, 47, came of age in the heyday of the cassette and likely harbors an affinity for hiss-filled tapes that I, and others my age (I'm 21), can't relate to. Sure, I had a cassette player once. I was five, and my dad would load the thing with Stevie Ray Vaughan recordings. But by second grade I'd moved on to better and slicker things, namely Blink-182 CDs picked up at my local Newbury Comics. From then on, I never used that Sony cassette player again.
Still, that player and those tapes were both lightweight and portable, something skipping, scratched-up CDs didn't compete with well. This low profile and their ease of use made them a cost-effective distribution medium for labels and hopeful bands trying to get A&R love, as well as a chance for DIY home recording and music swaps among audiophiles and young lovers alike.
We're all familiar with the well-worn trope of using a blank cassette to record radio bootlegs and make mixtapes for loved ones, an act that coerced the British Phonographic Industry to make the 1980s slogan "Home Taping is Killing Music."
I have been an active mixtape maker and music gifter my whole life. Every girl I've had feelings for has received a playlist with a little bit of mushy indie rock with a hint of gangster rap to cut the sappiness. I've used CDs, Dropbox and more to send these mixes, but tapes never have made the cut out of fear that the chosen lady would not have any means to play a tape. Even now, as a handful of my friends work at labels and music companies, I have convinced myself that the cassette tape is too niche to present as a gift. Can they ever make a comeback?
The cassette isn't quite shaking physical music these days, and it isn't enjoying the same sort of renaissance as vinyl, which has seen a 33.5 percent increase in sales in the first half of 2013 alone. But there is undoubtedly public interest in the format today, spurred by new tape labels popping up, a phenomenon Marc Hogan wrote about in a 2010 Pitchfork feature. Our colleagues at Noisey have said there’s a “resurgence” of tapes, even if most folks have yet to see it.
In September, there will be the first Cassette Store Day (an interesting title, seeing as there are few stores that just handle cassettes), which will include concerts and limited edition releases and reissues from bands like Fucked Up, Deerhunter and The Flaming Lips, as well as labels like California's Burger Records, Night People, Domino and my personal favorite 4AD.
The organizers' website claims that the cassette is "no longer the inadequate, younger sibling of vinyl and CD," and that it is "still going strong in the turbulent current musical climate." This may be true for die-hard music fans (who some may refer to as elitists), but sales and press coverage beg to differ.
Perhaps because they're pretty much nonexistent in the world of major labels and larger retailers, it's rather difficult to find out just how many cassettes are moving off the shelves. The Nielsen music industry report doesn't even give the cassette its own sales category. The analytics company lumps the format into a section called "Total Album Sales" that includes CDs, vinyl and digital album downloads.
According to NME, only 604 official units were sold in the UK last year (three times as many sales as the previous year), but most of the sales were of a single by British outfit Feeder. Good luck determining how many tapes niche labels like The Trilogy Tapes or Opal Tapes sold, as the plastic devices will surely continue to be ignored by Nielsen.
Digital Music News recently made a chart that tracks the decline of cassette sales, using shipment data from the RIAA. At the turn of the millennium, there were still over 70 million cassette tapes shipped throughout the US, while the site claims that number is essentially zero today. Based on DMN’s data, the cassette appears about as widespread as the irrelevant MiniDisc, which had just under 300 purchases in 2012.
Image via Digital Music News
These figures are not exactly accurate. Tape releases, even by established labels, are not always barcoded or quantified via traditional inventory, making it near impossible to figure out how many copies were sold unless one had access to each label’s PayPal or Bandcamp transactions.
Bands often make tapes themselves, do the artwork by hand, and sell them on tour (meaning cash only), again accounting for figures that the Nielsen Ratings could never properly measure. Plus, used or rare cassettes are often resold on eBay or Discogs, which do not count in these ratings systems, but which would still be indicative of their popularity.
Two people who know cassettes' renewed popularity well are Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard. The owners of Burger Records, which was once a bedroom project designed to spread the music of the owners’ own band, told me that their enterprise has since exponentially grown into a legitimate label with a considerable online presence as well as a store in California that sells cassettes, CD, vinyl, music ephemera and general art.
They told me their label has sold over 200,000 units since they started releasing cassettes in 2007. In 2012, they had around 200 releases, each consisting of 250-2000 tapes each, and nearly every single unit was sold. They have new releases almost every Tuesday, and have even caught the attention of bigger labels like Sub Pop and Universal, which allow Burger to release cassette copies of albums on the bigger guys’ rosters.
Bohrman described it as an “everyone wins” relationship, as the artists are able to release music on every type of outlet, “connecting the dots,” while expanding their audience and benefiting multiple labels at once. The growing label proves that cassettes are definitely still being sold, even if not at the same rate as any other music format.
The supposed tape revival cannot be attributed to sales and distribution. Most tape labels don’t have the same success as Burger or Night People. In a recent Reddit thread called "There's A Resurgence Of Cassette Tapes Being Made. Why?" commenters debated the merits of the format and discussed the current community dedicated to tapes. An individual under the name Bluesmojo wrote about running a cassette label:
I run a cassette label. It's not a "hipster" thing (if you have a problem with how other people consume music, you're the "hipster"). It's not about being analog snobs; most labels have Bandcamps and you can just download the releases if you don't want to buy the tapes. I think the medium is an artifact of the origins of this scene, which grew organically out of other movements that never abandoned cassettes (noise, punk and metal). At the end of the day, I think it's about community.
He went on to describe the "fun" of running a label that focuses on limited-edition releases and hard to come by recordings. To him, cassette labels are about a "curated collection of your favorite music" that focuses on ethos and personalization, rather than profit. The goal for this passionate redditor is to keep something alive and breathing, rather than inflate the media or mass public’s attention towards cassettes.
1998 seems so long ago. Via Wikipedia
To find out more about the value in personalizing tapes, I talked with Mike Sniper, founder of Brooklyn-based Captured Tracks, which sells LPs, CDs, cassettes and digital downloads from Brooklyn favorites like Dum Dum Girls, DIIV and Widow Speak. I asked why he thinks people start tape labels today and he suggested that “CDs are affordable to make but they've been cheapened by the major label music industry."
"I've said it 100 times but when you open a newspaper or magazine and five CDs pop out of it for free, you're asking a lot from a consumer to then go to the store and spend $17.98 on one,” he said. As Sniper describes it, CDs are disposable, devalued objects that many consider the middlemen between buying music (when that actually happens) and uploading it to your computer.
The small circulation of cassettes, however, allows them to become coveted artifacts faster than vinyl. Sniper pointed towards the Iowa-City label Night People, whose cassettes he described as “pieces of art." Sniper said the limited edition releases sell out immediately, which points to one source of cassettes' popularity: their collectibility.
Once out of print, tapes can exponentially grow in value online, such as Dirty Beach’s epic Night City, which now goes for over fifty pounds per tape while originally sold for a tenth of that. This makes tapes “another means for people to buy in to the music they love,” Sniper said. “You can’t do that with a download.”
While CD production is largely valueless and LP manufacturing is a long and costly project that could easily take four months, cassettes can be made in a week with no minimum order with extremely low overhead. Vinyl production often requires a minimum order of 250 LPs plus getting sleeves designed elsewhere, which for the start-up label could be prohibitively costly. With cassettes, individuals can buy blank tapes and dub them at home, or send whatever amount to a manufacturer at a price of around three dollars per tape.
Tom Pavlich of label Mirror Universe explained to me that “when you release tapes you can take more risks than you can putting out vinyl because they are inexpensive.” He also said that with the rising costs of vinyl, there is a place in the market for the plastic objects, even if small. In the 90s, a 7” record was sold for three dollars, while today a pressed single may be as high as $15. For those who want physical copies of music, the cassette is now the cheapest medium.
It’s never been easier to start a label due to the internet, but if you want to sell music in a tangible format, then tapes are the most practical means of production and give these small labels a better chance of continuing to put out music.
Tape labels may seem irrelevant to the public because they do not receive the same press coverage as artists on bigger labels, often due to the experimental nature of the music that these labels focus on. Cassette-only businesses are often bedroom passion projects run by individuals who have day jobs to support themselves. They probably can’t afford PR agents or label showcases, and rely on word-of-mouth, instead of traditional marketing and promotion.
After a few labels refused to comment for this article, I began to think that cassette labels shunned the press in some form of retaliation against the advertising-driven and sometimes nepotistic nature of the music journalism industry. Ultimately, though, tape labels want their artists to do well and press can only help. Pavlich summed it up well when he said, “We all try to do our best to get the word out about things we’re releasing. If we weren’t excited about the music and artists then we wouldn’t be putting out the tapes.”
Cassette Store Day could be a chance for these small labels and artists to get promotion without paying for it, though it’s still worth asking why now is the best time for a day to celebrate tapes. Why are we thinking about them in 2013?
Writing in Forbes, Bobby Owsinski asserted that "the only advantage that cassettes ever had over vinyl was convenience," and this characteristic was diminished once CDs grew in popularity. The author said that the only thing going for tapes today is the nostalgia factor and the longing for 80s and 90s culture, though others beg to differ.
Hypebot contributor Clyde Smith investigated music listeners' interest in cassettes in an article called "Why Cassette Labels Are More Important Than Many Can Understand." He rejects the idea that cassette production in 2013 is solely about nostalgia. Smith points to music genres tied to underground communities such as drone, noise and electronic music which he believes are "less about referencing the past and more about exploring what they want to hear now with an acute awareness of what has come before."
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the underground nature of modern cassettes—again, often limited edition with low circulation—complement the essence of niche music itself.
JR Chaparro, an A&R manager at Syn Entertainment in Tokyo and affiliate of Captured Tracks said cassettes are a way for people to physically connect with music again. Despite being an active consumer of all music formats, he proposed that there's "something about tactile audio product that has come to resonate with a wider audience, and maybe music snobbery that privileges obscurity has led the elite sheeple, deterred by rising vinyl sales, into the deep web spaces of Bandcamp tape labels."
Like others, Chaparro suggests that retromania is not quite the right word when it comes to present interest in the tape. Certainly cassette purchasers are engaging with an antiquated format of yesteryear. But their interest could be a testament to dissatisfaction with the current music market, be it cloud storage, Spotify, or even the present vinyl market that, fueled by high price tags at stores like Urban Outfitters and Best Buy, seems more kitsch than general acceptance. Though to be fair, you won't see releases from labels like Woodsist or Art Is Hard in such stores.
Although it's a petty (and most likely minor) reason for current interest in the tape, cassette fans may be making a choice to reject the somewhat mainstream LP resurgence. For a vinyl collector who spent years digging around dusty shops, seeing giant retail chains using represses of classic albums as symbols of authenticity has got to be frustrating. Could it perhaps be frustrating enough to dive into tape collecting?
But even cassettes may not be a safe haven from pop culture. A New York Times article called “Hitting Rewind on the Cassette Tape” identified a growing litany of objects that are “representations of the cassette” including prints and paintings, as well as notebooks, clothing accessories and USBs that look like the plastic music format.
Companies are reappropriating the aesthetic qualities of the tape and packaging it into a novelty product. This could be described as the marketing of constructed nostalgia, as it’s doubtful that the purchasers of plastic USB-shaped cassettes actually grew up to have experienced the format first hand. It can also be assumed that die hard cassette users would not purchase these toys. But again, these are are not cassette tapes, even if they look like them.
Burger Records is actually working on a collaboration with Urban Outfitters to make a walkman called “The Burger Buddy.” The difference between this and an iPhone cover that looks like a cassette is that “The Burger Buddy” actually can play cassettes and Burger hopes this player will influence more people to use tape players and listen to cassettes.
I think that when it comes to the tape’s relationship with nostalgia and memory, the consumer’s interest is embedded in the listening process rather than the object itself. We have become accustomed to having every song available at once due to Youtube, Spotify and iTunes on our smart phones. Most consider this a blessing.
For example, in a book called Sound Moves: The iPod and The Urban Experience, author Michael Bull states that by carrying a large portion of our music library around at all times, we are “liberated from the contingency of mood, place and time...thus engendering feelings of security in the user.”
The iPod created a “seamless auditory experience” because we can look for the next song to play while listening to another. Bull praises this aspect and connects it to modern time management. We can check our email, walk to work and listen to music simultaneously on one device, which is seemingly convenient and efficient. At the same time, how much attention are we actually delegating towards the music?
I used to try and listen to one album at a time on my commute to work, but the possibility of hearing a song by one artist, a cover of that song by another band, then an original song by a third group is often too alluring to resist. We play radio god with our smartphones, and I’ve found that this often leads to the feeling that I never have anything to listen to, despite having over twenty thousand songs on my iPod Classic. I rarely listen to FM radio, but it’s worth noting that I get excited when I hear a song I like played at random by someone else.
The cassette tape, even more than the LP, curbs our music ADD by not having the functionality to easily skip amongst tracks. If you want to hear the last song on a tape, you’re going to have to spend a few minutes listening to that fast-forward whirring sound and guess when you’ve hit the right mark.
Tapes force a more focused, or even purer, listening experience, and unlike vinyl, they're portable. The Burger Records guys used a metaphor I think sums this idea up best: Compare Netflix to actually going to a theater. It’s really easy to watch five minutes of ten different movies as compared to going to the cinema and staying for the whole thing. Listening to a cassette is an antidote to our short attention spans that are constantly decreasing due to the infinite amount of content available online.
In his Hypebot article, Clyde Smith quotes Jamie Milton, founder of the cassette-only label Heart Throb, who says tapes are part of the backlash against digital music and culture. Milton believes that labels are "taken more seriously" when they produce something physical, even if that product is niche and incompatible with the music playing devices of the mass public.
Bohrman and Rickard of Burger agreed. "It’s great to look at and touch tapes as compared to a file on a computer," Bohrman said. "It may be easy to share music online, but you’re missing something huge. Part of the mystery and magic of rock and roll is the packaging and design.”
Pavlich supported this and said that ephemera is still highly valued by consumers, as “a 12” LP jacket or a three panel J card is much more personal than the JPEG that comes with your digital download."
Cassettes are not for audiophiles, but they do target the sensibilities of DIY-focused artists who favor hand-drawn album art over computer-generated liner notes and blog coverage. Sniper’s thoughts were similar, as he told me that “a cassette is a way to be a little bit closer to the original recording, it’s tangible, and the artist was involved in constructing or at least laying it out.”
A tape may get dented and scratched and it’s coloring may fade over time. But like owning a book that suffers spine damage and wrinkled corners with use, the tape becomes an object with its own narrative and history as it becomes love-worn over time. An intangible digital file does not have as much life embedded in it.
Jen Long, who runs tape label Kissability, is the co-founder and organizer of the upcoming Cassette Store Day along with Steve Rose of labels Sexbeat and Transgressive, and Matt Flag of Suplex Cassettes. She explained that after the past success of Record Store Day, the three decided it would be fun to run a similar event on a smaller scale to celebrate their favorite medium. Originally, they wanted a little event at someplace like Rough Trade in London, but the event “took off a little quicker than expected” and it now happening all around the globe, as mentioned earlier.
Long said that she believes there’s “a bit of a resurgence going on,” or even a “comeback,” but Cassette Store Day’s concurrence with the format’s 50th birthday was a coincidence. The trio just wanted a day to celebrate the tape in a day that was more their own than Record Store Day, though they did hit up RSD’s organizers for approval of their tongue-in-cheek event name.
The organizers do not expect the tape to have an explosion like vinyl has recently experienced, but they hope CSD will call more attention to tapes. “It would be great if the cassette could have a little more worth in the mainstream,” Long said. “We wanted to get our releases into shops, as so much of what we sell is at gigs or online.”
Others are more optimistic, such as Beer On The Rug head Gaurav Bashyakarla. “The cassette resurgence has only begun and the invention of Cassette Store Day is indicative of that,” he said.
Whether the current attention placed on the tape is just a fad or something bigger is yet to be determined. Still, the fact that more tape labels pop up by the month and cities all over the world are participating in Cassette Store Day suggest that cassette won’t become extinct, even if it’s an endangered species.
After Long told me that "anyone who makes me a [cassette] mixtape will have a permanent place in my heart," I'm starting to re-consider my gifting process. Even if tapes remain a niche, the possibility of melting a lover’s heart with a homemade mixtape is stronger than ever.
This article has been reposted from Motherboard.