Many have assumed that the format war ended with the rise and assumed victory of digital media like MP3 downloads, online music videos and streaming services. That isn’t strictly true. In recent years, we’ve seen physical formats like vinyl take hold with audio obsessives and CDs are still a viable source of revenue for major artists. What vinyls, CDs and MP3s have in common is that they are all well within the public mindset of ways to listen to and own music, and yet there’s another access-point that is gradually growing an underground following. It’s a good old friend - the cassette tape.
Once the premise of road trips and radio-ripped mixtapes, this retro bit of technology is now regarded as the last truly alternative format. With so many other options on offer, we want to know why cassette culture exists and if we’ll soon be filling our glove boxes and shelves with these plastic rectangles of sound.
The thing about cassette culture is… it never really went away. Since the 1970s, there has been an admiration for this affordable, high-quality piece of recording technology with DIY bands and even a few established acts, such as Grateful Dead. This band used the format to share their music, interact with fans and have even inspired one avid tape advocate to document his efforts in collecting every Grateful Dead cassette in existence. The tape community appeared to have reached its zenith in the 1980s with a plethora of small labels offering cassette-only releases and music publications like the NME, Sounds, Factsheet Five and Op Magazine running regular features on this growing culture. As we now know, the good times were not to last and with the introduction and increased availability of alternative and arguably superior technologies, the passion for tapes seem to fade, but as mentioned earlier, it didn’t disappear altogether. So, where’s the evidence of this alternative record revival?
For a while now there have been hushed rumours of this fringe culture, many of which have been eclipsed by discussions surrounding vinyl amour and the huge potential of streaming. One of the overriding arguments for the resurgence of vinyl sales is that the sound quality far surpasses that of digital streaming, and by extension the favoured niche format also has that over tapes. However, it’s important to note that cassettes are not the domain of high-fidelity obsessives, instead there are some comments to suggest that listening to music on tape imbues more life into the recordings than their modern counterparts. For example, in one Diffuser article ‘Vinyl revival? Well, I’m more of a cassette man myself’, the writer Chris Kissel cannot help but take on a romantic tone when recalling that “soft hiss in the background, reminding you that behind it all, the album has its own essence, its own breath.” Another perspective for this reanimated sound was explained earlier this year by Esther Ford, owner of Manchester-based store Deco Records, who told BBC Radio 5 that “I’ve also started selling blank tapes to a lot of the bands who just stick a tape recorder in the middle of their rehearsal room [...] I think they feel like it gives them a truer sound than if they just recorded it off their phones.” Even more support for the tape’s unique resonance comes from Island Fox, aka instinctive electronic artist Jessica Bartlett, who released her own Nature EP on cassette via Post/Pop Records:
“For audiophiles like me, listening to lossless audio such as WAV on tapes and vinyls means an influence of the 'art of individual playing' on the physical format. This modifies the sound and adds to that 'beautiful imperfection' and uniqueness, knowing that it would never sound exactly like that if anyone listened to it again.”
The sound matters, that’s for sure, but it’s not the sole force behind music consumerism. If that was the case, then streaming services wouldn’t be nearly half as successful which rely on lack-lustre laptop and mobile speakers. The rise of streaming has also shown that people are increasingly unwilling to pay out large sums for the music they listen to. It’s the same reason that vinyl is still associated with the niche and hipster markets, because for many the records and the equipment needed to play them are either unaffordable or inconvenient. What cassettes offer is a low-priced, pocket-sized physical medium for people to own music and for musicians to actually make some kind of return on their hard work. In the case of Norwegian Blue Records founder Tyson Weibe, he was led to cassette culture following an EP release for his own band in 2010, whereby they gave away one hundred free download cards for fans to scan, but the heartbreaking reality was that not a single card was redeemed. Looking for a low cost, alternative to digital files, Weibe began by learning about the ins and outs of releasing tapes via acclaimed subreddit r/cassetteculture and soon after launched Norwegian Blue’s first tape, Mormon Girls’ The Farm Sessions. In addition to the economical motivator behind selling cassettes, this Canadian musician-turned-label-owner found the disappointment of digital sales falling flat in the face of tape ritual.
“I think the sheer act of opening the tape, reading the liner, and finding the card is enjoyable to people. I know I used to do the same with all the tapes I bought as a kid. That act is a tiny moment of connection between an artist and a fan, and it's something that can't be reproduced by the best sounding digital file (sorry Pono, et al.)”
Value for money is an enormous driver behind the increased interest in the fifty-year-old format. According to Forbes, the average cost for the manufacture of an individual tape is $2, and that figure at least doubles for vinyl production which can cost between $4 and $6. This reduced rate not only means bands and artists can independently put out physical releases much earlier in their careers, but as Tom Palvich (owner of tape label Mirror Universe) explained to Noisey “when you release tapes you can take more risks than you can putting out vinyl because they are inexpensive.” Perhaps this is why tapes continue to be associated with DIY outfits and experimental genres - it’s a format that harbours risk well. British label Blue Tapes is also a fan of this “underrated medium” for this reason:
“... the fact that it can be duplicated in such small runs (editions of 1? no problem!) means that you don't have to worry about appealing to a mass audience to recoup on costs. You can release really bizarre, unique experiments that probably only have a small audience naturally and cater comfortably to them without punishing your finances, as if so often the case when releasing vinyl.”
However, that fringe culture association hasn’t stopped the mainstream music industry hopping aboard the tape train, as displayed by the exclusive sale of The 1975’s debut album on cassette via retail giant Urban Outfitters. Neither the band nor the company are hurting for money, so why would they chose to promote tapes? Well, aesthetic trends have a leading role here. As pointed out in a New York Times piece titled ‘Hitting Rewind on the Cassette Tape’, the artistic pliability of tapes gave rise to “Prints and paintings of cassettes; pouches, belt buckles and notebooks made to look like cassettes; buttons with little cassette images on them; envelopes, a watch, even a soap dispenser decorated with the familiar cassette shape.” Rob Walker even comments on how designers and artists are paying homage to the plastic mold, such as Brian Dettmer’s skeletal sculptures crafted out of cassettes and thus becoming the perfect symbol of the seemingly dead format’s ability to live on.
The cassettes physicality has more than an artistic advantage on its side. One outstanding argument against digital music is that it encourages a throwaway attitude to listening and while you may dispose of an unloved tape from time to time, you’re much less likely to dump a whole collection. Even if you have no intention of erasing your online music library, the lack of control over digital storage means it could disappear without your consent. As Wired journalist Graeme McMillian puts it, “If you have a glitch with your digital storage, it could be gone. Whereas with tape, it’s tangible. It’s right there.” This tangibility of music on tape is also a recurring point amongst our contributing experts. For example, this is what the owner of Tape Club Records had to say:
“Nowadays, consumption of music/entertainment happens immediately. If you want it, you're hearing it, and you'll likely move on quickly to the next thing. A cassette is simply one of the cost-effective ways to create a longer-lasting tangible relationship with a fan or listener. It can sit on a shelf, or in your car, or on your desk. It's a statement of commitment beyond just a blast of binary digits that makes us feel a little more involved.”
That is a real issue we have yet to address within the music industry - the sense of the ritual, the sanctity in music ownership is at the risk of being lost altogether. This is why tape labels and cassette culture as a movement is so important, it reminds you that music isn’t some airy substance formulated in an industry machine. There’s real people, real instruments, real thought, messages, feelings behind so much of our modern music. The next generation of music fans surely deserves something more than a clickable download and a pixelated thumbnail of graphic design. As the online world continues to rule over the music industry, there’s already a growing need for this real world reconnection between the artists, the music and the listeners. As Get In Her Ears radio presenter and avid tape promoter Tash Walker explains:
“We live in a world where more and more of our life and frame of reference is becoming digitalised, so what happens? ...we long for something tangible...enter the cassette tape revolution.”
“For audiophiles like me, listening to lossless audio such as WAV on tapes and vinyls means an influence of the 'art of individual playing' on the physical format. This modifies the sound and adds to that 'beautiful imperfection' and uniqueness, knowing that it would never sound exactly like that if anyone listened to it again.
The turn around and ease of releasing cassettes vs vinyl, is much quicker and cheaper from what I can gather; I worked with an upcoming independent tape label POST/POP, which involved a really easy and appealing 50:50 physical split of a limited run of 100 tapes and no contracts etc. I think physical releases of limited edition merchandise will always have that 'rare' appeal to collectors and as an artist grows, become more valuable in many ways as well. POST/POP was a great label to work with as the owner, Jed, really loves tapes and has been taking a stall to many independent record fairs and festivals, as well as working with Rough Trade etc to really get upcoming artists' tapes heard. Cassette Culture was actually also something I grew up with owning a Walkman, and so it was great to physically release on a format that meant so much to me as a kid; an achievement which I could hold in my hands.”
“There are still some practical advantages to physical formats. Space on my laptop and other devices is always at a premium, so I'm constantly deleting and losing mp3s. Worse, said devices have a tendency of breaking frequently so it's not uncommon to lose everything. Even when I do have mp3s long enough to listen to them once or twice, I find that digital devices are increasingly glitchy and corrupt and bad at just playing music. Although it's really convenient to have thousands of songs on my mobile phone, it's absolutely terrible at being a music player, and my iPod - when I had one - wasn't much better. I can't listen to music on a computer without also doing other things on the computer (checking email, browsing Tumblr - stuff that isn't just concentrating on the music). These days, myself and most of the people I know tend to use Spotify/Bandcamp for streaming and previewing albums and then investing in the physical when we purchase. It's physically harder to get rid of a chunk of plastic than it is an mp3. Plus they turn up in random places just when you've forgotten about them and you think oh! you! I should put you on and just forget about what I'm doing for a bit. That seems to be harder to do with digital music. There is shuffle, but then you just tend to shuffle through a pre-curated playlist and not really listen to the original album or release in sequence.
So that's the case for physical in the digital age, or at least one dimension of it. Of course, there are other physical music formats - LP, CD, 8 track, Mini Disc, etc. Tapes are cheaper than all of these. And they look cooler! Always hated CD packaging. The vinyl boom is making LPs too expensive. Tapes are cheap, convenient and cool, and infinitely customisable. It's hard to do a generic-looking tape these days, and the fact there are so many cool tape labels now really drives people to do ever-more interesting and original designs.
So that's why I prefer tapes to other physical formats. Tape is also an underrated medium, sound-wise, and the fact that it can be duplicated in such small runs (editions of 1? no problem!) means that you don't have to worry about appealing to a mass audience to recoup on costs. You can release really bizarre, unique experiments that probably only have a small audience naturally and cater comfortably to them without punishing your finances, as if so often the case when releasing vinyl.” (David)
“Nowadays, consumption of music/entertainment happens immediately. If you want it, you're hearing it, and you'll likely move on quickly to the next thing. A cassette is simply one of the cost-effective ways to create a longer-lasting tangible relationship with a fan or listener. It can sit on a shelf, or in your car, or on your desk. It's a statement of commitment beyond just a blast of binary digits that makes us feel a little more involved.” (William Evans)
“We can talk about how cassettes are an inexpensive investment, how they are an object that can bring the wonder of new discovery to some people and nostalgia to others, how they are an analog item at a fraction of the cost of an LP, or any of the other myriad reasons that the humble cassette is making a comeback, but to me, the tape is about having something physical in a world of intangibles.
In early 2010, my band was about to release a four song EP. Seeing that digital seemed to be the way of the future, we printed up 100 download cards to give to anyone who walked into the venue for our release show. Of those 100 cards, zero were claimed. As an artist, this was heartbreaking. We make our art so other people can interact with it, so to have a zero percent rate was astounding. Even close friends of ours, who played in bands of their own, that attended the show hadn't downloaded it.
At this point I started asking people why they hadn't downloaded it. The most common comment was that the card had been lost. The idea that we could put our energy into the EP and people would lose it that easily was so frustrating. So I started thinking of low cost alternatives that people would be unable to lose.
After a bunch of terrible ideas (the worst being laser-etching the download codes on rocks. Something I was only ever semi-serious about, no matter what the other owners of Norwegian Blue tell you) I remembered that another local label (Mammoth Cave Records, R.I.P.) had done a sampler of Alberta music on tape. So I started digging into tape culture.
From there I found a subreddit (r/cassetteculture) with people who were making tape culture happen. I spoke with them, asked questions and learned about do's and don'ts. Eventually we released our first cassette, Mormon Girls - The Farm Sessions, with a download card included -something we've done with every tape since. That tape has sold across Canada and around the world, but the real kicker is this: for every tape sold, the download card has been redeemed.
I think the sheer act of opening the tape, reading the liner, and finding the card is enjoyable to people. I know I used to do the same with all the tapes I bought as a kid. That act is a tiny moment of connection between an artist and a fan, and it's something that can't be reproduced by the best sounding digital file (sorry Pono, et al.)” (Tyson Weibe)
“For those of us who grew up in a world of cassette tapes, our trusty Sony Walkmans were always firmly clipped onto our belts and fed our favourite tunes of the time straight into our ears (my first purchase being Return of the Mac - no judgement). Now over the last couple of years we've seen a resurgence of the trusty tape as more and more bands are releasing their latest EPs in this format. I think it would be hard to argue that nostalgia doesn't have anything to do with this u-turn, but on a more practical note you have the reduction in cost compared to our beloved vinyl, as well as the weight and size of the cassette. There is also the ever increasing demand for the DIY aesthetic that runs alongside the zine, which again has become a lot more popular in line with the 'second wave' of riot grrrl music. We live in a world where more and more of our life and frame of reference is becoming digitalised, so what happens? ...we long for something tangible...enter the cassette tape revolution.” (Tash Walker)