Tapeheads triumphant: lowly cassette is making a comeback
Small bands don’t have the resources for vinyl, but they can release boxes of tapes for next to nothing.
It probably escaped your attention that last Saturday was Cassette Store Day. Riding the same DIY wave that brought us Record Store Day, cassette heads have long been barking at the moon that the fiddly and cheap piece of plastic – which delivers the ultimate in lo-fi sound – is having a second cultural moment and is now the very height of retro-chic.
With the likes of Haim and Deerhunter releasing special-edition cassettes of their music to mark the momentous event, there’s a growing sense that, on the outer edges of boho organic indiedom, the cassette is the coming fashion choice. The Walkman has yet to make its presence re-felt in the hipster killing fields of South William Street, but it’s now practically de rigueur in parts of Brooklyn and Hoxton.
It’s a fashion-led recession resurgence: tapes are cheap to produce and cheap to buy. Small bands and labels don’t have the resources to produce vinyl (most of which goes unsold), but they can release boxes of tapes for next to nothing.
The poster boy of the Cassette revival is Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. His recent quote, “I only listen to music on cassettes”, gave the movement a sound ideological basis; others such as Beck are soon to release cassette-only music.
For oldsters who remember the days (right up until the end of the 1980s) when cassettes outsold vinyl and the then-new compact disc, the tape is a nostalgia trip – a reminder of times past when physical music actually meant something. Cassettes made music mobile for the first time, generations before the smart phone. Because they weren’t so easy to fast-forward, people would, astonishingly, listen to entire albums in one go.
For a younger generation, tapes are achingly anti-digital cool. With music now meshed into so many social networking sites (do you really want to know what someone you don’t really like is listening to?), the cassette returns music to a private experience. And as for the much-derided sound quality of the tape, is it really that much worse than the Tannoy-like din you get from smart phones?
From C86 (ask your parents) to riot grrrl, the cassette was behind some important musical moments. Some labels have stuck with them through the thick and thin of Napster, iTunes, Spotify etc. People think cassettes were consigned to the rubbish bin of music history decades ago, but they were still selling in the millions up until eight years ago.
“Cassettes are the embrace of something old and outdated,” says Shawn Read, who runs the cassette label Night People “They are intentionally obscure and marginal, almost pointless in some way.” Those, though, are very much their virtues and USP in today’s digital daily tsunami.
According to the organisers of Cassette Store Day, most duplication plants are stretched to capacity as sales rise (albeit from a very low base). Over the next few months expect to see a couple of I Love the Cassette Tape documentaries (most likely home: BBC4). If you go to Vimeo you can see the trailer for one such upcoming release. Type in “Cassette Documentary Trailer, July 2013). It looks great.
From laughable relic to must-have analogue accessory, it’s not over yet for the cassette.