Maybe it’s time to revisit the cassette tape.
Cassette tapes get a bad wrap, but there was a time when they represented some revolutionary ideas. I think it’s time that we revisit those ideas, and take a moment to reconsider how we approach physical media, and what we want from music.
Since the start of the recent “Vinyl Revival”, we’ve seen all kinds of people come out of the woodwork. Some of these people genuinely love music, and the way that music sounds on vinyl. (Is it better? That’s a story for another article.) Some of these people want to cash in on rare releases. Some of these people are cultural elitists, who buy $1000 cables and claim to “hear the difference.”
But, by and large, the people listening to vinyl are kids looking to own something permanent, rather than paying a monthly fee to listen to the same 100 songs over and over again. They — we — are attracted to vinyl for a lot of reasons (it’s cheap, it can sound better than anything else, it’s interesting to own, sometimes it sounds shitty in interesting ways, the artwork is huge.)
I’m here to argue that, for all of those reasons and more, we should embrace the tape.
Cassettes are historically significant to the development of musical culture.
Okay, so maybe it’s not the best reason to buy/sell something, but you have to admit that it’s true.
Don’t believe me? Well get this: The rise of the cassette tape is directly tied to the rise of the DIY subculture, and ultimately to the widespread dissemination of Punk music. Go check the timelines. See, the cassette democratized music, and made it possible for anyone to record.
Boomboxes with cassettes were the original MacBooks with Garage Band.
Without the cassette tape, we wouldn’t have ever had New Wave, Noise Rock, Grunge, or even Alt Rock. Without the cassette, hiphop and rap would have remained underground, more or less forever. They weren’t just the cheapest way for bands to record themselves, they were the only way.
Cassettes are cheap
Cassettes cost less to produce or purchase than vinyl and CDs. They’re the cheapest way to get physical products from most bands. Today, many of them come with download codes, which means that you’re still getting access to a digital copy.
Cassettes sound good
Despite what you may have heard, a well recorded cassette, played back on a nice cassette player will give most other formats a run for their money in terms of fidelity. They do have a little bit of hiss (which is why some people love vinyl), and they have problems of their own (wow/flutter, for example.) Thankfully, they don’t suffer from many of the same problems that CDs can, and when they distort, they tend to do it in a musical way.
Heck, some of my favorite albums were recorded straight to cassette.
That doesn’t mean that all tapes are well recorded, or that all equipment is nice, but it can be done.
Cassettes sound shitty
I’ll be the first to admit, a poorly recorded tape, played back on a cheap walkman, isn’t going to sound exactly like the music that was put on to it. But sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.
Cassettes have had enduring popularity in the Punk, Noise, and Lo-Fi genres because of the active effect they have on the music. Playing a cheap tape through a cheap tape player will shape the sound in ways that are, usually, pretty cool.
Tapes are satisfyingly physical
Tapes have a nice heft to them. They feel good to hold in your hands. They actually have substance. This stands in stark contrast to a CD, which is just a transport for digital audio, and not an artifact in its own right.
It’s hard to be proud of a collection of CDs. They’re cold, and mechanical. They don’t have personality.
Tapes, on the other hand, do.
Tapes are convenient.
I mean, they’ve got nothing on MP3s, in terms of ease of use, but they’re leaps and bounds ahead of vinyl. Cassettes take up less space than vinyl, and can be played back on the go.
Heck, it’d be easy enough to write an article lamenting the loss of the Boombox, or praising the virtues of the Walkman, but at the end of the day what we’re really talking about is the cassette.
Heck, alot of us already have to put up with them
I know that many people my age have to put up with cheap, shitty cars. These cars have tape players in them (and those tape players have aux adapters in them.) Embrace the fact that a tape player is already in your life, embrace the cassette.
Cassettes are personal
Relationships have been built around mixtapes. A good mixtape takes time and care to craft, and the end result is far more significant and personal than a mix-CD or a playlist could ever hope to be.
What other format, in the history of recorded music, has ever been so intimate?
A homemade tape will last as long as (or longer than), and sound as good as (or better than) a commercially produced cassette. The same cannot be said about a home made CD.
If you take care of them, your cassettes will outlive your CDs.
It’s about the community
If you want to make your own cassettes, you can pretty much just do it. The same equipment that you use to consume them will help you create them. This is true if you want to make a copy (old-school filesharing!) or if you want to create something wholly new.
Tapes can be created, and copied, really easily. For decades, people have taken cassette players to concerts to record them. (We have these bootleggers to thank for our rich collection of live performances from The Grateful Dead, and countless other concert bootlegs, as well as live releases such as The Velvet Underground — Live at Max’s Kansas City.)
Because tapes are so easy to make, and so easy to copy, a huge community of tape traders exists. These folks help one another discover new music, and preserve recordings that are hard to find, or in danger of being lost to the ages.
This kind of a community just couldn’t exist around other formats.
They’re fuckin’ cool
See, I told you so. Cassettes are rad. They represent a huge part of our musical and cultural heritage, and everyone from StarLord to Metallica has celebrated them in recent months. Cassette Store Day gets bigger every year, the list of cool labels releasing awesome music on tape is on the rise.
We think they’re worthwhile, we think they’re awesome. We hope that you’ll agree.
So why do we buy vinyl?
Vinyl is cheap.
Vinyl can sound fantastic.
Vinyl is satisfyingly physical.
If vinyl is going to sound bad, it will do so in interesting ways.
Vinyl has permanence that is lacking with digital music.
And that’s exactly why you should buy cassettes.
Tapes are cheaper.
Tapes can sound just as good.
Tapes are satisfyingly physical.
Tapes degrade in interesting ways.
Tapes have permanence that is lacking with digital music.
Tapes are more convenient.
Tapes are more accessible for bands.
Tapes are super personal.
Tapes are culturally significant.
Tapes are easy to copy.
— and — if we’re being honest, tapes are cool as hell.
So, what’s vinyl got that tapes ain’t got?