Why 2019 Will Be the Year of the Cassette (again)

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Illustration by Aubrey Norwood

You might not have realised it yet, but the popularity of cassettes tapes is on the rise. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the obsolete audio format was gone for good, but over the past few years that little nostalgic rectangle has caught the imagination of an entirely new generation.

And looking forward, 2019 seems like it will (again) be the year of the humble cassette tape.

Artists, audio-heads, musicians and even oddball music fans have all picked up the format that nobody wanted, and over recent years, sales in cassettes have skyrocketed, albeit still relative.

13 Reasons Why used the format as a pivotal thematic plot device throughout the whole series and Guardians of the Galaxy’s merch cassette tie-in have basically solidified its presence in modern popular culture.

But why? What’s so alluring about the format you probably have a box full of somewhere in your loft?

Reading various responses online about the allure of tape brings up a fascinating palette of reasons to why the cassette has managed to make a comeback.

Firstly, you have to take the artist’s approach. Musicians and audiophiles have long made the case that analogue recording and playback is superior to their digital counterparts.

The sound tape gives is warm. Saturated. It promotes a degree of imperfection, and creates an underflow of infamous tape hiss that leaves the format feeling nakedly honest, which is gold dust for the sincere-inclined musician. Even distortion on tape is valuable, adding textural qualities that cannot be emulated on digital tech. For an artist looking for inspiration and something different amongst the never ending options of digital recording, analogue is certainly appealing.

Focusing more on the recording side, music production on analogue equipment gives the recording process a unique set of pros and cons. Artistically, you are given a limited range of tools to work with. Unless you can afford a nice 24 track reel to reel recording studio, you’re probably going to be using the indie favourite, 4 track tape recorder.

Apart from some technical trickery, 4 tracks is all you get and 4 tracks is a very small number to work with. This is a blessing and a curse. Although frustrating, it forces musicians to push themselves creatively, to make sure each and every track counts. This, combined with the physicality of rewinding and fast forwarding, the manual format gives an incredibly unique experience for musicians recording their own material.

What’s more is that putting out music on tape is cheap. Bands with not much money can easily get their stuff put to tape, or can do it themselves for even less. Putting your stuff on tape is also a decent way to get your music heard. There is a very active community which is always looking for more music to hear via cassette tape. This presents a great way for otherwise hidden music to reach out to people who will really react to it.

You might see big signed bands put tapes out in places like Urban Outfitters, but don’t be mislead. This is not a gimmick riding off of the resurgence of vinyl. Cassette culture is an uphill battle, and those who are into the format have a special connection to it. Tapes are truly alive in DIY and underground scenes everywhere, serving the bedroom musicians and independent artists who really need them.

On the listener side, cassettes present a kitschy, yet surprisingly high quality format. Their shape and size is iconic, and the tactile nature of slotting in a tape into your player is one that is unrivalled by formats like CD and even more so with MP3s or streaming.

I think it’s fair to say a big draw for cassettes, at least initially, is nostalgia factor. And if we can say anything for definite about current media, it’s that nostalgia has been a big deal for a while now. A lot of people in their late teens/early twenties would probably have a very minor recollection of when tapes were commonplace, I know that I do. The cassette hearkens back to a time that is for many is familiar in its aesthetic, but was never actually experienced, and those who are drawn to that cassette aesthetic are now having their own experiences today.

What’s nice is that at the moment (for the most part) tapes are really cheap to pick up. Bands typically don’t charge very much and it’s an exciting process digging through charity shops, garage sales and online to find your favourite stuff. Since they’ve been regarded as useless by many for so long, there’s a lot of stuff out there looking for someone to discover.

You can see this whole trend through the steady rise in popularity for places like r/cassetteculture and the success of labels such as Z Tapes.

So in the new year, don’t be surprised if you start seeing even more of those little familiar tapes cropping up. Because looking at their organic growth over the past few years, they don’t seem to be slowing down just yet.

Wandering and alive

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