When I saw local bands handing cassette tapes to audiences, I was initially dumbfounded. The well-known resurgence of vinyl was understandable; their full, original sound was well-known among music fanatics. But the rise of cassettes seemed to reflect some steady, irrational decline of music formats. In 2013, for example, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported the sale of two million tapes. International Cassette Day was founded the same year.
Tapes seem to be the format found in forgotten glove boxes of your dad’s beat-up truck. Thrift stores alike are the final resting place for the countless corpses of cassette players. Who in their right mind is willing to buy this shit, or worse, produce it? My hands shook fearing there would be a push for the revival of phonograph cylinders.
However, the more I researched, the more I understood. The format’s been lingering in local punk, techno, rap and noise scenes since its apparent death. Yeah, cassettes sound fatty, speckled with static and as a Pitchfork article accurately says, “unruly and uncontainable”. But that’s why they work. The sound, like the format, is cheap and disposable.
When Gene Simmons told young rockers, “Don’t quit your day job,” that the availability of free music has “murdered” the music recording industry, he was only half right. Musicians are just prioritizing. In today’s market, tapes seem to be the best option besides free download for penny-pinching musicians (the vast majority of the music industry).
Small-time musicians are adapting to the industry. Digital formats are always an option, but audiences often yearn for a physical copy. The idea of distributing records is attractive, but they’re often expensive and produced unreliably and off-schedule. The compact disc, on the other hand, has lost its charm among music enthusiasts due to its failed pursuit to sound cleaner than vinyl. Since 2009, it’s been largely to blame for the shrinking percentage of US album sales.
Meanwhile, cassettes are cheap. The cheapest tapes from small labels cost an average of six-dollars, while vinyl costs up to ten dollars or more. Their durability is poor, but they’re easily distributable for many small-time musicians. Selling some kind of physical copy can ensure some kind of profit rather than a BandCamp “Name Your Price” option.
They’re also used for their unique production style. The quality may be lo-fi and trashy, but can complement the style of the genres mentioned above. Cassettes may not suit today’s Top 40 singles, but maybe they were never meant to. Acts like The Gaslight Anthem, The Flaming Lips and Fucked Up have used tapes’ artistic advantages to their fullest, emphasising their gritty, often in your face musical style.
The rise and dramatic fall of cassette tapes gave the format a lacklustre reputation. But in the modern age, it seems to have found its place in the music industry as a niche for thrifty, explorative artists.