Music Features

Pressing “rewind” in an era of technological “fast forward:” D.I.Y. Cassette Culture finds relevance in the shadows of digital media — Part 2

This article is the second in a two part series on cassette culture. Click here to read Part One.

I still own a tape deck.  Call it intuition, call it a need to cling to the past, I remember turntables being disposed of in the name of the almighty CD twenty or thirty years ago, prodigal sons caught up in the mania of digital progress only to later realize how good they had it.  Their ritualistic listening was minimized by ease of track selection, their sound was leveled out and sadly reduced by file compression.  Steve Albini had a point when he said, “Fuck digital,” though few of us seemed to listen.

Though I’ll admit my fondness for new music on cassettes waned once I’d acquired a CD player in the early 90s, I was never without the means to play or record with them, fascinated with the idea of crafting my own individualized versions of THE perfect album, one that adhered to my sensibilities regarding genre, song sequencing, long cuts as opposed to quick transitions, etc.  It’s this obsessiveness that I carry as nostalgic baggage, still tied to those long evenings in my teenage bedroom attentive to that shrinking spool of advancing tape, hoping it would provide just enough room to get in one last song. 

Cassettes granted me access to a very expansive world that I’d not yet even begun to explore and memories of this very visceral period in my life are some of the clearest I have.

“I fell asleep listening to tapes as a child. My dad didn’t trust me with his turntable and records, so he’d dub tapes of my favorite records for me to listen to on my own.”  Ritter reminisces,  “The tape also allowed for me to begin experimenting with recording at a very young age.  Disabling the erase head and (recording on) a tape over and over again with (a) Casio, tambourine, and my 4-year old stream of consciousness ramblings are some of my earliest and strongest childhood memories.”

“I've been listening to tapes since the early 90's when my brother would send me mix tapes in the mail from college of all the interesting new bands going on in the underground,” says Parrish.  “I got to hear a bunch of copies of stuff from tape labels like Shrimper, Union Pole, some early K Records tapes and 7"s, New Bad Things, Pavement bootlegs, Huggy Bear, etc.  It was awesome.”

Parrish continues, “So listening to tape hiss and stuff has never been a barrier to me.  It was weird when bands like Vivian Girls and Wavves came out and were being called lo-fi because it sounded a million times better to the 3rd generation copies of Irving Klaw Trio songs I’d heard on mix tapes! “

“Old technology doesn't really die it just bumps along in a sort of subterranean realm of secret users, kind of like magic and alchemy,” observes Dylan Carlson, lead guitarist of the Seattle drone band, Earth.  “Also analog recording and listening technologies are superior in every way to digital ones.  Reality is analog, digital is a product of the materialist/rationalist paradigm and is doomed to destruction. Cassettes are like the 'perennial philosophy' of hermeticism.”

Once CDs phased out cassettes in the 90s, tape decks more or less disappeared from mainstream outlets.  The last portable cassette Walkman was manufactured in 2010, which, considering how much music resides in external hard drives, laptops and iPods these days, is kind of amazing.  Being that tape decks and boomboxes are relatively scarce outside of E-Bay and other online specialty vendors or shopping sites, could one consider releasing music on cassette as catering to elitism or perpetuating musical exclusivity?

“I don’t think that my label is trying to be exclusive by selling tapes, but we do have a very specialized audience.”  André Foisy is a member of the ambient, experimental metal band, Locrian, and owner of Land Of Decay, which releases the music of his own band along with Gates, ThisQuietArmy and Cultus Sabbati.  “We’re a very specialized community. We play music that isn’t the most accessible thing in the world. Most people in my neighborhood aren’t going to be interested in picking up the demos that Servile Sect made in 2005/2006, for example.”

“Well, some people are always going to have a negative reaction towards things they don't understand,” says Parrish.  “I wouldn't say that tape decks or boomboxes are that scarce, though.  I saw about 15 tape decks at Goodwill yesterday, affordably priced between $8 and $25.  Then I went to Fred Meyer a few blocks away and they were selling iPods for $250.  From a financial standpoint, I'd say that's much more elitist.”  

Donovan, however, doesn’t hesitate to call it like he sees it.  “For sure,” he says.

Having brought up the means by which to play albums on cassette, there is a perception of the format that it remains inferior next to vinyl or digital, the drawbacks being tape hiss or other incidental sounds from moving parts. 

“Cassettes have as good a sound quality as vinyl, it just depends on the cassettes used,” Carlson says.  “I try to avoid anything over 60 minutes because the tape is thinner and has a tendency to stretch.  As long as you keep tape heads clean and de-magnetized, you are fine.  Any sound issues are usually poorly cared for equipment rather than the cassette.”

Stebner protests the notion that sound quality is an issue with cassettes.  “Pure and total falsehood,” he declares.  “I could on and on about the fallacies of the strength of digital, the reasons why the best records are recorded to magnetic tape, the digital processes that merely attempt to capture the warmth of tape, how magnetic tape captures the unbroken wave (and) not a construction of little blocks. That cassettes have poor sound quality is a misnomer: it is a different kind of sound.  I'll take the warmth and hiss of cassettes over the tinny-ness and shrill frequencies of CDs any day.  Do not heed the propagandists.”

But, acknowledging that there are incidental noise factors present when listening to music on cassette, do some artists benefit from the format?

“Music that is poorly recorded in a digital home-studio environment benefits from the tape ‘warming’ up the sound and smoothing out some of the nastiness that can come from those types of recordings,” says Ritter.  “Music that is recorded on tape, for example on a cheap 4-track recorder, might benefit from never leaving the analog realm and staying as close to the original sound as possible. I think a lot of the music being released on cassette actually suffers in the end because of fidelity loss. I’d like to see more music released on tape that is about songwriting than about sonic design.”

Dan Katz of Dullest Records says, “Bands on a budget have been overjoyed that they have had to put zero money up and get a bunch of tapes because they cost us so little to make. It allows them to make money and us not to lose any, so it is very win-win. Also, with certain bands that pride themselves on lo-fi production (Black Metal especially), I think it gives them the sounds they are looking for.”

Keeping in mind the cost associated with recording and putting out albums and about the music industry that seems to be in perpetual decline, the blame continually put to filesharing and Internet piracy, have consumers been responsive to the availability of this product?  Are cassettes really selling?

“They're selling, but not like hot cakes,” says Parrish.  “But, I've had to order more copies of each release from ‘national audio company’ and am proud that I’ve been able to pay royalties to all the artists that have agreed to work with me.  It feels great.  The lowest selling release on Dog Daze sold 150 copies and the best selling has sold a little over 300.  Nothing huge but it's been sustainable and it's not like any of this stuff has huge commercial appeal or anything.” 

Adams says, “The FSS cassette releases have done well and sold their runs relatively quickly.  One combination that worked really well was for the artist to take cassettes when they go on tour.  People seem to like buying cassettes at shows.”

“I can't say it's lucrative, but in the end, it mostly pays for itself,” says Stebner.  “I think people are stoked to get them, bands are stoked the music gets into peoples hands, I'm stoked I can make something and be active. Putting out 100 tapes, not losing any money, people hearing new music, bands making it. It's great!”

For Joyful Noise, Hofstetter says, “We have seen a great response. Most of our cassette releases sell out very quickly.”

The struggle and effort to keep music tangible continues.  With regard to cassettes now playing some role in the presence of physical music and the independent marketplace, (albeit a small one), Hofstetter says, “I don't think the cassette resurgence is just a trend, but I also don't expect cassette sales to reach anything close to vinyl or digital sales. I see it remaining a small niche, which music nerds will continue to either love or hate.”

“Perhaps when the 1% all are living in Dubai, and the rest of the world is sunk back into poverty, they will return as the dominant form of music delivery,” says Carlson.  “Until then, they will be a specialist market similar to, but less pervasive, than vinyl.”

"It’s not a trend for us, though it probably is a trend for some people," says Foisy.  "It’s interesting that most tape labels today are primarily run via the Internet. I don’t think that the Internet is going away and I don’t think that cassettes will go away soon either."

“I think purely by people's own bias against the format that no, tapes will likely not return in any ‘prominent’ way,” says Stebner.  “Whatever. I'll just keep putting out things I think are rad any way I can. Collectors of new and interesting music will look for it in any way they can.”

As purists continue putting stock in the artifacts of their affection, there will be a resistance to what many predict to be the extinction of physical media.  As the underground tasks itself with distributing and producing challenging and non-commercial work, it functions through passion alone and a need to defy conventional modes of progress, technological or otherwise.  The cassette defines this rebellion, a small but significant rebirth of an antiquated form fit for the purposes of networking, dissemination, enlightenment and for having to work toward your own personal enrichment.  We do appreciate more what we earn and the relics from our past sometimes hang out to remind us not to take the things we love for granted.