At best, the cassette revival is merely a vacuous fad of no genuine value; but at worst, it's a confused, regressive cultural misstep more dangerous than most would care to admit.
It might be that this ethereal little thing called "the Internet" gets frequently set up as a vague threat to the significance of the good ol' fashioned "real world", but the tumultuous struggle against some sort of faceless and terrifying e-void has me pretty confused. The signs of deliberate regression are everywhere: vinyl LPs continue to (re-)grow in popularity; micro-communities built around fan zines and basement shows continue to burgeon; lo-fi home recording remains a spirited exercise in anti-consumerist, anti-corporate production and distribution; and, most recently, the inexplicable comeback of cassette tapes has confirmed its status as veritable hipster zeitgeist. Would it be a stretch to suggest that these are, at least implicitly, hostile gestures? I propose that, considering the fervor with which they're supported, the major creative outlets for DIY culture are borne less from unbridled passion than unfounded apprehension -- these are confused lashings-out against an allegedly "valueless" system (a system of distribution, promotion, dissemination, and so forth), a system that is abstract, complex, and terrifyingly new.
The decade's purported rebirth of vinyl as a format for releasing contemporary albums has been well-documented, and it would be sensible to view the more recent subcultural fascination with tapes as a simple addendum to an established fad. And indeed, the informing logic is ostensibly similar: vinyl and cassette are both neatly sidestepping the physical album's decline in popularity by regressing to a decidedly obsolete format, thereby investing their product with a kind of antique novelty. If music fans are no longer willing to shell out ten or 20 dollars for your CD, perhaps you'd fare better in appealing to the consumer's lust for distinction. It would be difficult for me to contest the aesthetic value of a vinyl record over a compact disc, but in any case the motivation seems transparent enough: the novel qualities of one physical product are allegedly more valuable than the arguably 'disposable' alternatives. The concern is only exacerbated in the face of iTunes and file-sharing, where the cheapness of the product is magnified and the aesthetic content of the package is taken out of the picture entirely.
The notion that a physical record has more significance or "authenticity" than a digital one is dubious and regressive, and bullheadedly refuses to acknowledge the convenience and widespread acceptance of MP3s. It simply romanticizes the physical, and it speaks to our cultural fixation on nostalgia -- buying an album in physical form is implicitly traditional, and cassettes in particular, being so obviously antiquated and technologically redundant, better capture that nostalgia than do CDs, which still mostly persist, and vinyl, which has continued aesthetic and technological relevance. It is precisely because cassettes have no technological advantages over other formats that they are so appealing for a growing number of fans; their deficiencies are to be relished as markers of the music's perceived authenticity in contrast to the ephemeral, digital alternative. Ironically, with its enabling of free and democratic dissemination, online file sharing is more true to the spirit of DIY, underground culture ethos than are the outdated distribution methods certain subcultures deign, confusingly, not to give up.
Conversely, tape's defenders often cite the format's least progressive quality as the most relevant in the digital era: the fact that cassettes retain the LP's intended cohesion -- unlike the CD, which introduced easy track skipping, and the MP3, which arguably erodes the much-lauded album as a singular entity -- situates the format as a kind of idealistic symbol of musical unity. But the cassette's purported ability to strong-arm listeners into consuming albums more wholly is largely misleading: cassette players unwaveringly included a fast-forward function, which, while certainly clunkier than later iterations of the same premise, nevertheless gives listeners a sense of control over the listening experience. And lest we forget, the controversy surrounding home dubbing and recording of radio precedes Napster's similar drama by over a decade -- funny that a format so frequently employed to the ends of deconstruction and compilation should be revered now as a defender of albums entire.
In general, the essential function of the cassette precludes its value in the event of it being improved upon by other formats, which was precisely the reason for their initial decline in popularity. All arguments to the opposite effect -- that it is cheaper and easier for a small independent label to release albums on cassette than it is on vinyl or CD -- are met with the inevitable and fairly obvious rejoinder: if frugality is the primary issue, why not skip the physical release entirely and release something directly online instead? That alternative comes at a fraction of the cost of even the cheapest cassette production and release. Thus the sole recourse of the cassette enthusiast is an appeal to that vague and highly problematic romanticism: cassettes tapes, it seems to many, are simply "cool".
And that misunderstanding is really the heart of this argument. Highlighting the flaws of the format proves little; I ask 'why cassettes?', and you answer 'why not?'. Surely more insipid fads have slipped by unnoticed, and there's always the fateful dismissal of criticizing any thing of this sort: should cassettes offend my sensibilities so thoroughly, the tape defender might helpfully suggest, perhaps I would be better off ignoring them. But I insist that the zeitgeist demands more than a roll of the eyes or a shrug of the shoulders; this is a serious contention, one that needs careful consideration -- or at least more consideration than its legions of supporters are at this point willing to give it.
It seems to me that as the music industry struggles to graft an archaic business model atop a distribution and promotion system that resists it intensely, independent musicians should seek to close the gap between the majors and the independents by embracing new -- and inexpensive, widely-available, far-reaching, and so on -- technologies and formats. What we require now, with all of these opportunities for free dissemination of music on a scale never before possible, is forward thinking -- an adoption of the progressive mentality that informed the initial rise of cassette culture wills us away from that format specifically and toward the very modes of production, distribution, and promotion that the cassette revivalists so stubbornly refuse to accept. At best, the cassette revival is merely a vacuous fad of no genuine value; but at worst, it's a confused, regressive cultural misstep more dangerous than most would care to admit. There is danger here, and despite the intentions of its advocates, this is a trend that's less a tribute to the DIY mentality than a betrayal of its basic premise.