Some music formats just won’t die.
During the past decade, vinyl sales have increased to the point where Nielsen Soundscan projects 5.5 million units will sell this year.
But now, even more perplexing, the cassette set is showing signs of a resurgence.
As someone who has heretofore turned his nose at their return, I stand ready to do a 180 degree turn: Cassettes are cool.
That sounds like I love them now. I’m not sure that was ever the case. As a child of the ’80s, I have an affection for them fueled by nostalgia, but as a practical delivery system for music, they’re the worst format to achieve dominance since the middle of the 20th century.
However, a few reasons have given me a newfound appreciation for them.
Vinyl’s resurgence makes practical, marketable sense. It’s a durable, high-end commodity that offers unparalleled sound. As vinyl woke from its dormant state, labels embraced it. Many new releases are available on wax, even in limited quantities.
Major labels haven’t been as quick to warm to tapes, but the tide is rising. Last month marked the first Cassette Store Day, a concept spun off from the successful, annual Record Store Day ventures. It also marked the 50th anniversary of cassettes.
RSD encourages shopping at independent record stores and boutique shops, often for limited edition or early release vinyl titles from the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys and hundreds more.
The first Cassette Store Day featured limited edition offerings from Animal Collective and The Flaming Lips, the latter of which went full-on boutique-release supernova crazy for RSD last year by releasing picture discs pressed with the blood of the musicians who made it.
The burgeoning cassette renaissance is still flying under the radar, however. If vinyl is a physical music consumers’ pâté, tape is still more like secret sauce.
Cassettes are a low-budget way to support an artist. Instead of dropping upwards of $30 at the merch table for a slab of wax, mass-produced tapes can go for as little as the price of a button, sticker or iron-on patch.
Tapes are easy to buy and produce, easier than wax or compact disc, which makes them underground and counterculture. Appropriately, punk and metal groups are some of the artists who have most welcomed the return of tapes.
If punk rock is often a rejection of the societal norms – a defiant middle finger to common trends and culture – the most punk thing an artist can do right now is to reject digital distribution and communication.
Punk is about keeping it real. Striving for a return to more human interaction and more personalized distribution serves that. Tapes further that. They’re a voice that says the artist is going to be heard somehow, some way. This mirrors the D.I.Y. ethos of tape’s most dominant era, the ’80s.
That’s exactly what’s happening. They’re cutting records with small, independent labels and distributing them via cassette.
Mike Haliechuk, of Toronto hardcore band F–ked Up, said it best in a recent interview: “Recorded music isn’t really about fidelity of hi-fi sound, as some people would like to believe. It’s about remembering things, places and scenarios.”
There’s an admitted naivete in saying “just get it out there” because thousands of recordings go almost unheard every year. More music is recorded now than at any time in human history, but not even the most diligent listeners who consume handfuls of records every day could hear it all.
Music is about that spark, that connection. When someone hears it and latches onto it, those sounds can forever imprint on that person. Whether the delivery method is digital, vinyl, CD or cassette, if it reaches the right ears and makes an impact, it’s done its job.
While I think the cassette is the weakest format to enjoy extended popularity as a primary format, I can appreciate the underground, punk or anti-establishment ethos behind what they have become.
As long as music is out there to be heard and enjoyed, it’s the what and not the how that matters most.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.