In the digital age, where music is bought, sold, traded and listened to through non-tangible formats, consumers have found themselves craving the nostalgic sensation of holding their cherished albums by hand. Vinyl filled that void to a certain extent, causing a major hike of releases in the format between 2009 and 2010. But with that came an economical competition for local independent artists who don’t have the capital to circulate their music through the new (actually old) and groovy medium of records. While CDs are still technically on their last legs and the vinyl boom of 2010 is still booming, cassettes have swooped in from the 80s, swinging from decade to decade by polyester tape, to fulfill the demands and desires of a growing community of artists and listeners alike.
While cassettes are making a comeback, this doesn’t necessarily imply that they rose from the dead. Tapes have actually been alive and…well, maybe crippled, for use of a better word – in the less mainstream punk, experimental, and “DIY” music scenes. However, an increasing number of big-name artists, such as Eminem and Metallica, are reissuing their classic records onto cassette, which has provided a more widespread recognition for the vintage format.
There are a number of drawbacks associated with tapes, such as poor sound quality and an apparent halt in the manufacturing of cassette decks, which can prompt someone to conclude that these plastic, music-emitting bricks are simply the result of a new trendy phase or a commodity fetish for millennials. Surely, that may be the case in certain aspects for certain individuals; but for those who are passionate about music and invested in the unheard harmonies of their communities, this resurgence of tapes plays a much larger role than vintage kitsch.
Ben Miotke, a cassette enthusiast/collector and employee at Sisters in Christ Record Store, told me how cassettes have more value and practicality than generally assumed. “They’re more portable than vinyl and more memorable than CDs and MP3s,” he explained. “And they’re the least expensive form of physical media.” His comment on CDs is highly accurate. There is something unappealing about buying CDs today. After purchasing a local band’s CD from the merchandise table, one may experience regret, not because of the music quality, but for the future listening experience. While holding the disk in its flimsy sleeve or squeaky case, one may start to worry if the song names are going to be listed as Track 1, Track 2, Track 3, etc. You may think to yourself: Damn. Am I going to have to type in each song title? Am I going to have to put effort into this? Maybe CD ROMs are too young for millennials (like me) to feel any sort of nostalgia for them; maybe since we already experienced this medium at the top of its class, we don’t miss it.
More importantly, his comment on the affordability of cassettes is the main appeal for the outdated format. As I stated before, an economically feasible way for local and independent artists to produce, release, and get their name out there is essential. MP3s have conveniently provided an easily accessible mode for musicians to publicize and promote their music, free of charge. However, with a market for sentimental value and the demand for physical media, independent artists struggle to compete with the pricey market of vinyl. The internet has undeniably changed the dynamics of music for the better, but it has also created a completely jumbled and overloaded web of options, practically free and easily dismissible to the listener, leaving the profitable side of the music industry on the outskirts.
Local bands who don’t (or didn’t) have a lot of capital, such as Donovan Wolfington and Pope, have released all of their albums onto tape, which presumably played a role in their gaining a profit and a following. They are signed to Community Records, a local New Orleans record label that produces primarily tapes alongside vinyl and CD (and of course MP3). Grace King Records, on the other hand, releases strictly through the quirky middle child of physical audio formats. Patrick McKee, co-owner of Grace King Records, expressed his ideals regarding cassettes and his motives for producing them. “We’ve been really fortunate to put out eight really good releases since we started,” he explained. “It probably would have cost as much to do one vinyl release.” Similar to Miotke, McKee holds tapes with sentimental value, meriting the objects themselves along with the monetary advantage. “They’re a physical compliment to the music. Much like records, they’re a little piece of art that’s unique to your experience with the music…and a lot of the time, they carry a story or connection to show where you bought it,” McKee said. This personal connection with the format is of course not attuned to everybody’s comfort and convenience in regards to the way they listen to music, but tapes nevertheless satisfy a similar nostalgic itch that caused the significant rise in vinyl.
According to both Miotke and McKee, the drawbacks associated with cassettes are not as bad as we think. Most people do not own cassette decks anymore and the idea of spending more than $50 on a supposedly modern machine that’s only function is to play an ancient format seems like a bad investment, which it is. Seriously, take a look at the “new” cassette players the internet has to offer. They look just as boxy, angular and bulky as they did in the 80s—as if electronic companies are still trying to get rid of the remainder that sat on the shelves throughout the CD-ROM age. However, one of the most common ways to find a cassette deck is to simply check your parents’ basement or storage room. More often than not, you’ll stumble upon an old, dusty and forgotten noise box that hasn’t fulfilled its purpose in years. And even if family or friends tossed their deck a long time back, these vintage machines can be found on Craigslist, ebay, Amazon, etc., for reasonable prices. Through my online research, the average cost of a used cassette deck is around $25. That’s not too bad. Also, if you own a car that predates 2003 (or early 2000’s in general, it varies from car company to car company) like Ben Miotke (and myself), then the vehicle most likely contains a cassette player stereo. The car is where Miotke is able to entertain the nostalgia that cassettes bring to music. “When you can listen to an entire album in the way that it was constructed by the artists who made it, it’s a lot handier than MP3s. There’s no ‘skip a track’ function. You’re along for the ride that the artist wants you to hear through their albums,” Miotke said.
In terms of sound quality, “Vinyl is probably the absolute best listening experience,” according to Miotke, and probably everybody else. Tapes produce a “warm, fuzzy, distorted sound” that repels most people. But for others, this sound is aesthetically pleasing and it cooperates with certain genres better than others (“lo-fi” and punk predominantly). However, new technology has been able to diminish the inferior audio quality associated with cassettes. “We have our tapes made by a duplication company who put the highest quality audio files into the tapes, so there’s really not much difference in sound quality between records, CDs and MP3s,” McKee, from Grace King Records, said. The “warm, fuzzy and distorted sound” that he described depends on the tape player, not the tapes themselves. The appeal for cassettes is the same appeal that comes with vinyl: a physical copy of music that reminds us of a time that we didn’t experience or, for the veteran record/tape collectors, reminds us of a time that we did.
So, are tapes making a big-time comeback? Are cassettes going to recover from decades of neglect? That’s a tricky question, because as of now, cassettes are almost exclusively involved with independent music and separated from what is being played on the radio. But with Eminem and Metallica rereleasing their classic records via cassette, we may witness the outdated medium enter the mainstream and become more sought out by the general public. However, I don’t really think it is necessary for tapes to strive for mainstream status. It is unobservant to not recognize the hip, kitsch and in-style trends that come with vintage commodities such as cassettes, especially when celebrities conform to the fad. But aside from fetishizing the old that becomes the new– aside from what most people would view as a hipster infatuation– there is an important function that cassettes have consummated in local music industries. They provide an accessible, affordable and portable market for a music community that is being overlooked. When and if cassettes come back in style– when they become the new cool thing– I can foresee the important role they play being discarded. As of now, the function cassettes have filled is more important that the cassettes– the objects– themselves.
I’ll end this with a statement made by Patrick McKee of Grace King Records: “Tapes are only as important to me as the incredible music we have the blessing to release. We do this because we have friends who make music that’s begging to be heard, and that’s the most important part. If there’s one takeaway from people learning about this ‘medium’ that we’re into, I hope it’s that people listen to the songs our friends let us press to tape. I really believe that it’s some of the best music being made. It feels like a responsibility to do something more with their music, and I’m thrilled that we get to expose it to more people.”