The humble cassette tape and why there’s reason to champion its return

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cassetteFollowing on from the unlikely resurgence of vinyl Getintothis’ Matthew Lear sees an equally surprising resurrection for the humble cassette.

With the success of the ‘vinyl record revival’, it is no surprise that other audio formats, previously deemed as expired, are being looked at again.

The search for a lost format that harks back to presumably simpler times, now leads most trendsetters to the humble cassette tape.

In fact, sales of tapes have more than doubled in the past year. However, it’s dangerous to immediately label such a statistic as a ‘revival’ of such, given that the sales numbers are still unimposing in relation to other music formats.

Cassette sales in the US totalled at just over 170,000 for 2017; a meagre figure compared to the 14 million vinyl sales recorded that year and vinyl itself only accounts for 14 percent of all physical US album sales. Nevertheless, there’s still been a dramatic increase in interest for tape, and for good reason too.

Vinyl’s mass-market presence and transcendent popularity has ultimately affected its charm and quirkiness, consequently removing its once-niche appeal. Perhaps now then is the time for the cassette tape to fulfill this idiosyncratic need. Though many deem the ‘revival’ of such a format as little more than a tragic hipster fad crippled by inherent sonic imperfections, the tape is undoubtedly a refreshing detachment from contemporary, conventional music distribution.

Among its other properties, its cost and intimacy, in both production and circulation on a small scale, serves the need of underground and grassroots music scenes universally. Maybe this smaller revival-of-sorts shouldn’t be shot down in mockery but instead embraced to support music scenes from the ground-up.

The issue with the increased popularity of cassettes, compared to its vinyl counterpart, is that the comeback is not primarily fuelled by warm nostalgia. Those who remember using tapes as their main means of music listening often associate the format with frustration: the extraction, retraction and warping of the tape – never mind the seeming impossibility of an accurate fast-forward or rewind.

RIP the C90-when cassette tapes first died

In the midst of the vinyl resurgence, many rediscovered the albums of their youth, but there is something less appealing in the distracting whirring of an old tape compared to soft crackles and small scratches from worn vinyl records.

It’s no secret that the tape does not fare as well in the test of time and surely this gives the format a great disadvantage, repelling any potential new audience? Well, not exactly. The focus of such a revival could well base itself on such a fact. In the modern world, the Internet automatically gives music permanence. Longevity – not regarding critical appreciation or artistic execution, but in the simple fact that the music itself will stay there forever.

The notion of the infinite is remarkable but not exactly romantic. What is romantic is the prime of substance, the death and decay of an object of great meaning. In this sense, the tape has something in greater concentration than CD and vinyl, something that digital music cannot inherently hold: a definite life span.

The glorification of the finite and celebration of decay makes for an antithesis to modern consumer culture. Once removed, the constant mind-numbing obsession over HD listening and streaming hopes to reveal the very heart of the product – the music.

Sure, it admittedly helps in identifying and enjoying certain nuances of many tracks, but it is refreshing to be forced by a format itself to step back and listen to the rawer elements of the music: lyrics, melody and obvious instrumentation.

This concept of appreciating the rawness of the music product is found not only in its temporal aspect but in the physical side too. Proven by vinyl’s recent popularity, people to this day clearly love and appreciate the physicality of music.

Something to hold and inspect, it is hard to cherish a pixelated album cover as much as a well-loved gatefold LP. Yet you can’t exactly take your favorite 12-inch record on the bus. CD’s are not aged enough to warrant fashionable appraisal so the cassette seems a suitably hip solution. Surely the combination of tangibility and portability with its retro attraction gives the cassette tape a valid place in trendy modern music consumption.

Though these are important aspects of the tape, the main positive of the so-called ‘cassette revival’ is not consumption, but production. The notable audible cons of the format will inevitably mean there are less people who want to consume their music in this manner. However, it is necessary to separate auditory consumption from the rest of the product. Many people are willing to purchase cassettes not for hope of superior audio quality but merely to support the artist.

Big label cassette reissues hold no genuine or artistic merit; they simply stir the craze and capitalize on marginally augmented interest – recent Prince, Eminem and Nirvana cassette re-releases are not done for essential monetary support for the artist. However, the format can truly support smaller artist: artists without big label backing, struggling against reluctant CD sales and miniscule streaming royalties.

Prince 21 Nights at the O2-Ten years on from the greatest show on Planet Earth

Small or underground artists heavily depend on gigs as a source of income.

In light of the confused era of Internet music consumption, this has proven to the most infallible resort. From this, the artist shares their musical product both in an immediate and a long-lasting sense. They play their material then the opportunity normally arises to invest in the artists work.

Streaming doesn’t directly help and the CD seems increasingly disposable. This has started to push newer artists towards vinyl sales, embracing the current revival in a search for security. However, this is trickier than it seems.

Vinyl record production, innately done in batches, requires financial backing and confidence in shifting the lot. Unable to fulfill the requirements, this restriction can often cripple independent artists, limiting the potential for increased support and revenue. This is where improved interest in cassette tapes could genuinely help grassroots music scenes.

Artists can record their own music onto the cassette format to eventually sell themselves. This not only saves time and gives the artist control over batch numbers, but also costs dramatically less than vinyl production. The independence and relatively low cost gives musicians a valuable tool for progress.

There is artistic license given to the aesthetic aspect too, with many small artists now making the inside sleeve and cover in a similarly intimate ‘Do-It-Yourself’ process. The format, produced in small batches, is undoubtedly unique and personable. With control over batch numbers and look, the logistics and charm of the product is ideal for grassroots music distribution. With underground scenes especially trading and well as selling self-produced cassette tapes, the format has proven to be a great networking device – perfect for the growth of smaller, less established artists.

So whether your outlook is jaded by years of fiddling with dodgy tapes, or you absolutely have no clue what this piece of plastic is, let alone how to play it – why not give the cassette a chance.

Perhaps if we embrace this revival-of-sorts, even purely for the sake of grassroots music scenes, the craze may indeed prove not just to be a mere hipster fad, but a valuable tool for smaller artists to spread their music and receive an added source of income and support. Though laughably anachronistic, this outdated format could, in fact, help somewhat in defining the future of independent music collectives.

The most recent annual festivity of all things tape: Cassette Store Day proved this notion to be true. The event’s showcased cassette singles, notably Los Bitchos’ Tripping Point and Sad Palace’s Frostbeat, celebrated and supported the talents of smaller artists. It provided not only indispensable exposure for the featured music and musicians, but also financial sustenance – a perfect model for what this cassette-craze can actually achieve.

Away from organized events, smaller artists do still see the cassette tape as a valuable format, not just a yearly, perhaps gimmicky, episode.

Upcoming New York indie-rockers Big Thief have released two fantastic albums in the past two years, both widely available to buy in the cassette tape format – and, it must be noted, cheaper than the CD and vinyl versions.

Closer to home, Dublin’s own Rejjie Snow has, too, gone with the trend; the Irish rapper’s brilliant new LP Dear Annie being given the cassette treatment. To add to this, psychedelic hard-rockers Turbowolf have also followed suit, planning to put out their much-anticipated new album The Free Life on the retro format as well. These genre-spanning releases now only serve to demonstrate the relevance and worth that the cassette tape holds for new and upcoming artists.

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