Cassettes are back

Cassettes are back (Shutterstock images / November 13, 2012)

Listening to music couldn't be any easier these days. With an iPhone, a Wi-Fi connection, earbuds and one finger, you can avail yourself of Neil Young's entire catalog, forgotten works by late Hungarian composer György Ligeti or two dozen new releases every Tuesday.

Except that a few people want to make things more difficult. For years, we've encountered (and tolerated, with a sneer) those hippie-weirdo holdouts, hovering over outdated quadraphonic turntable systems, stacks of dust-cover-wrapped LPs and enormous speakers, insisting analog's the only way to go, man. And that's been fine.

Now cassettes, heavy casualties of the compact-disc age, are making a comeback, as more and more indie rock bands (even a few major label ones) are releasing music exclusively on Maxell and Memorex.

Few music lovers would admit to getting teary-eyed over the steady disappearance of the cassette, which, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), began after 1988, when the number of units sold peaked at 450.1 million; only about 15,000 cassettes sold in 2010. From 1983 to 1991, cassettes outsold LPs (which peaked in 1977, at 344 million units) and compact discs (which crested in 2000, almost exactly one decade after the cassette, with 942.5 million units sold). Not bad for a medium that, as late as 1979, was getting its ass kicked by the now-laughable 8-Track tape.

Before 1984, the year Pioneer developed the first automobile compact disc player, there was never any real competition once you got in your car. But popping a cassette into any sort of tape deck nowadays feels hopelessly anachronistic. So while LPs retreated to basements, happy to be the fetishized objects of an exclusive club, and compact discs took over the roads and highways, cassettes struggled — and failed — to achieve retro-cool status.

Still, for cash-strapped musicians, cassettes offer a workable compromise: it's an analog product (like vinyl) they can actually afford to mass produce (unlike vinyl).

"The difference is that with cassettes they are much, much cheaper to produce than records," says Jonathan Sterne, an associate professor in the department of art history and communication studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "They can be produced domestically and artistically. They can be released in batches of 50. They are more portable, easier to mail." Compared with mp3s, Sterne says, "there's a physical object, which is what a lot of these subcultures are invested in. They want a thing to go with the music."

Sterne has written a number of scholarly essays and books about outdated and current communication technologies, contemporary cultural studies and other related subjects. He has two more books on the way, including MP3: The Meaning of a Format. He talks about a time when cassettes occupied the space now taken up by the mp3: they were cheap to consume and produce, and they were everywhere. (When Whitney Houston's debut album outsold everything else in 1986, for example, it's fair to say more than half of those units were cassettes.) And while they're still popular in other parts of the world, cassettes — and especially cassette players — are becoming less common in North America, producing a kind of rarity, Sterne says.

"You can still find piles of them for next to nothing, but if you want to listen to a cassette it takes some work," Sterne says.

Two years ago, Christopher Hoffmann, a 22-year-old art student from Southington, Conn., started Grappa Frisbee Records, a DIY-niche label that produces handmade cassettes. At any given time, Hoffmann's label represents between 20-30 artists from around the world, most of whom aren't tied into any sort of contract (they arrange to work with Grappa Frisbee through a "one-time submission"). Hoffmann says the demand for cassettes has to do with a deep-seated need to have to hunt for music that's not readily available.

"A lot of our artists are rooted in hip-hop, heavy into beats and the hip-hop lifestyle," Hoffmann says. "A big part of that is digging for records, whether that means you're in a CD store digging through compact discs, or at a tag sale going through boxes of 12-inches or dusty 7-inches, looking for who-knows-what. It's almost a cultural thing for them to want music in a physical form."

Custom cassettes, Hoffmann says, are for bands who want their music to seem like more than a download link. He buys boxes of cassettes on eBay dirt cheap and creates the artwork by hand in his bedroom. "I cut shit out," Hoffmann says. "I'm bleeding all the time from the Exacto-knife. I've got the duplicator, so I can duplicate three cassettes [at a time]." The DIY aspect of the business, he says, is a "punk rock sort of thing, which I also grew up with."

Occasionally, a band will deliver Hoffmann a very specific set of ideas for what they want their cassette release to look like — colors, designs, lettering and so on. Others grant him the freedom to do what he likes. The finished product is put up for sale on the Grappa Frisbee website. Hoffmann also delivers copies, which typically sell for $5, to a few brick-and-mortar retailers, including Redscroll Records in Wallingford.

"They sound great," Hoffmann says. "I just spraypaint them with Montana acrylic spray paint. When all is said and done, I really don't have to go out and purchase anything to get a project underway. I'm not charging any artists to make anything... We work out the split for the profits."

Toward the middle of 2010, major media outlets, including National Public Radio, USA Today and the Washington Post, began reporting on the rebirth of the cassette. There are currently dozens of cassette-related blogs and Tumblr sites. Cassette-only record companies, including the Los Angeles-based Leaving Records (which released Dual Form, a double-cassette compilation of music by Stones Throw Records artists, on Nov. 6), appear to be thriving. There's also a Kickstarter underway to fund Cassette: A Documentary Film About the Cassette Tape, by filmmakers Zack Taylor and Seth Smoot.

In some cases, cassettes are the only way you're going to hear a new song or album; the July/August music issue of The Believer, for example, came with a 24-track cassette sampler of music you can't find online or on a compact disc, by bands like Baby Island, the Hysterics, Soviet and Sewn Leather. (A download code on the back cover allows you to go online and grab a digital copy.)

Elsewhere, limited-edition cassettes are tied in to conventional CD or digital releases, as with the recent release Apocryphon by American metal band the Sword, who offered fans a cassette copy (while supplies lasted) if they bought a CD or vinyl copy.

The people involved in buying and producing music on cassette these days, Sterne says, are not the ones who remember rewinding cassettes the first time around. "I don't listen to cassettes," Sterne says, "but I'm old enough to remember when music was released on cassette... If you don't have the baggage I have, it's easier to see it as an interesting artifact, as a collector or music lover, because in my experience, it was always a compromise." Of course, if his favorite band released something only on cassette, "I would get over it pretty quick," Sterne says.

The fact that you could create your own cassettes, sequence songs and produce unique mixtapes, Sterne says, was vital to their initial popularity. "The average person didn't have a record lathe. But people could make or assemble cassettes. There was a more involved relationship with recording." At the same time, cassettes had a particular sound, one that even shaped some musical genres (lo-fi, for example). And like all analog products, you have to take care of them. "You can't just leave them in the car in the sun or they'll warp or melt, although that becomes part of the sonic experiment."

There's also the size. "It's hard to think of it now, but it was once called the 'compact cassette,'" Sterne says. "There was an aesthetic of compactness back in the '80s that we don't think of now... But does a cassette feel compact to someone who's 22 the way it did to somebody in 1978? Probably not."

For Sterne, the exclusiveness of subcultures is perhaps the most interesting explanation for the cassette renaissance. "If you are making music and not making it available online, that's a statement, an aesthetic or political one, about not wanting to participate," he says. "I think for a certain music collector, there's a feeling of being lost, when everything's available and you're being overwhelmed by so much quantity and not being able to use music the way you want... In fact, who goes to a store that sells records? People who want to expend a little extra effort to listen to music. Why would you do it otherwise?"

Hoffmann, the label owner, is too young to have grown up listening to cassettes, but he remembers being fascinated by them. "I grew up with cassettes, and it was always kind of home-y, just the tape idea," he says. "I still love watching movies on VHS. It's like listening to something on a record." The latest Grappa Frisbee cassette sampler, available now, was produced and designed entirely by Hoffmann as an expression of everything he loves about the medium.

"It's just what I'd want to see in a store," Hoffmann says. "I try to make them seem sort of modern, but at the same time, how modern can you get? It's a cassette tape."

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