Reconsidering the Revival of Cassette Tape Culture

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.

That’s the argument employed most frequently in support of vinyl’s continued relevance. And it would seem that any recent fixation on tape releases are informed by a similar mentality. But it’s in a closer examination of the formats’ respective virtues beyond the woefully superficial that the comparisons begin to break down: vinyl’s continued relevance lies not in its novelty as product, but in its superiority as technology — it’s the format of choice for discerning listeners with a keen ear for quality audio, and for that reason alone its arguable frivolity can be excused. Thus vinyl serves a function: it provides something many audiophiles insist digital releases cannot. Cassette tapes have no such value. Behind the hip veneer of ‘authentic’ tangibility or the warmth of physical presence, arguments for the value of the cassette unspool and decay like so much magnetic tape. The cassette is permanently relegated to the realm of the fervently anti-digital; it affects vinyl’s distaste for the new and intangible, but does so seemingly for the sake of mulishness alone.

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.

All arguments in favor of contemporary cassette releases rely explicitly on the misguided presupposition that a recording’s physicality has some sort of intrinsic value. None of the arguments for vinyl — that the format’s audio is superior to the highest-quality digital files, as we’ve gone through already — are applicable here, for the format itself was never designed with superiority in mind: cassettes were primarily products of convenience, a cheap, easy way of releasing and listening to music. The cassette’s initial appeal lay in its improvements over the more cumbersome qualities of earlier formats, but the contemporary obsolescence of these improvements are difficult to refute. The choice to purchase a cassette over a vinyl record was a decision based on relative convenience, in that sound quality is actively sacrificed for the benefit or portability and compactness — and these are advantages the cassette has no relevant claim to now, when an iPod does the same thing exponentially more efficiently.

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”.

People are wont to invest the traditions and practices of generations past with the highly dubious gravity of nostalgia, particularly if those traditions seem suddenly and perhaps unfairly obsolete. But the initial popularity of tape as a recording format for underground music was not the result of any fascination with the medium’s specific aesthetic, but our of sheer necessity: it was the only method of releasing music which made any financial sense. To presume an aversion to contemporary recording formats and promotional tools and distribution methods on the part of elder underground artists is an anachronistic projection of wary posturing onto a subculture that never had the opportunity to reject or accept either way. The original champions of tape culture weren’t interested in the product so much as the function: to get their music out there, into the hands of kids who wanted it, in a way that was fiscally feasible with modest budgets. They were never afforded the opportunities for simpler and wider distribution available cheaply today. Who’s to say K Records wouldn’t have been a MySpace phenomenon? And what would have been the problem if they were? Releasing your underground album on cassette may be a symbolic gesture in tribute to DIY culture, but the product yielded shows nothing for movement but unfortunate misunderstanding.

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.