Welcome Back Walkman: The Resurgence of Cassette Tapes
New York-based musician Noah Davies sits alone in his bedroom, chords and pedals entwined at his feet, with nothing but a tape recorder in hand.
It is on that tape that he is recording the sounds for his psychedelic-indie rock band “field trip’s” burgeoning catalogue. In fact, the unsigned band released their debut EP on cassette tapes and is set to release their next complete work via cassette, as well.
“I wanted something physical,” said Davies. “I think it’s a sort of cry for help in an age so steeped in digital dysphoria.”
Like field trip, a number of bands of the DIY and indie variety have been releasing their music on cassette tapes. For indie musicians especially, cassettes can be a cheap way to sell physical music, typically costing only $2 to produce, according to the National Audio Company. And in recent years, cassette tape sales have been on the rise, stated in the Nielsen Music Report as increasing from 500,000 sold in 2014 to 600,000 in 2015, a similar trend to the recent vinyl surge. While cassettes made up only 0.0025% of album sales in 2015, their recent comeback has given upcoming bands an opportunity to share their sounds on something physical.
Petite League, a Syracuse-based indie rock group, is another example of a band that values physical albums. Singer Lorenzo Gillis Cook said, “It’s nice knowing people have your work on a shelf somewhere instead of just on their iTunes library.” The band solely released their debut album digitally, but plans to release their sophomore album on cassette this summer.
“The Internet brought light to so much in music and made it accessible, but at the same time, it started to trivialize it,” said Gillis Cook. “We expect music to be a click away, fast, and free.” Though he said the resurgence of cassettes does not mean an end to digital consumption, he thinks “it has helped slow things down and let people appreciate records more.” According to Gillis Cook and Davies of field trip, this value of listening to music in its intended form contributed to both of them releasing music on cassettes.
Rough Trade, the largest record store in New York, has its own cassette tape stand even among the abundance of vinyl. “Cassette tapes have been really important to suburban indie bands who may not have a lot of money, but want to get their music out there,” said sales associate Hafi Yackel. Like field trip and Petite League, who both note that pressing cassettes is a cheaper alternative to pressing vinyl, stating this as one of the main factors that led them to release cassettes.
“I think that’s why Burger Records has done so well,” said Yackel, pointing to the label’s shelf of the store’s cassette section. Burger Records is an independent label home to eighteen DIY signees, actually known for primarily releasing their music on cassette and have done so since their 2007 inception.
Even though Burger Records rarely releases music on another form, many other labels have also started pressing cassettes again. Some have even made partnerships with the National Audio Company who is the largest producer of cassettes, making tapes more accessible to consumers once labels distribute them to record stores.
Whilst browsing the cassette section at Rough Trade, model and music fan Janie McNeal said that she recently came across a Walkman at Goodwill and decided to get it. She said, “I wasn’t really looking for one, but I was glad I found it because I had been wanting to listen to my parents’ old cassettes, and since then I’ve pick up a few of them from local bands, too.”
Not all fans are buying into it, though. Student and music fan Kasey McCarthy said she doesn’t understand how people can listen to tapes. “I feel like it’s super unreasonable to expect someone to carry around a Walkman today when they can listen to the same music on their phone.”
While it may be easier to listen to music digitally, Noah Davies of field trip notes that listening to cassettes in the digital age can be just as simple. “I get the response, ‘How am I supposed to listen to this,’ a lot, but tape players are, like, ten fucking dollars. People these days have zero inclination to put effort into listening to music.”
Davies said that listening to tapes is a special sonic experience. He said cassettes “color recordings in a really beautiful way,” explaining coloration as the production process from the harmonic distortion that can only come from recording via tape.
“It also adds tape hiss, which is basically an unwavering foundation of white noise,” said Davies who has always loved this gentle, gritty sound. He said, “I used to wait outside of my mom’s bathroom when I was really young so I could hear her hair dryer and I would fake asthma attacks so I could hear the sound of a breathing machine.”
Though the sound it produces embodies their DIY essence, field trip and Petite League said they are truly drawn to cassettes because of the inherent nostalgia that comes from being in the music industry. “A lot of bands of the indie persuasion are nostalgic deliberately to say something about the absurdity of modernity, of 2016 specifically,” said Davies.
It may be more convenient to pop in ear buds and hit shuffle, but bands like field trip, Petite League, and others within the DIY scene are yearning for days of the past when listening to a physical record straight through was the only way to listen to music. Tapes are undeniably on the rise, even with digital downloads and streaming services largely making up all of music consumption. Though most artists will still be found in the studio, distributing their sounds online, musicians like Noah Davies of field trip are just as likely to still be in their bedrooms among cords and cassette pressing TASCAMs — searching for something tangible in 2016.