The Cassette Tape Revival - Digital vs. Analog Week on BTR


Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The cassette tape, once thought of as dead and buried in the early heyday of the digital music file, has recently made a striding comeback reminiscent of the resurgence of vinyl records that began around ten years ago.  Though still considered anachronistic by some circles, the medium’s principle appeal, according to it’s admirers, is more than mere decade-nostalgia. The finicky malleability of the analog tape inside the cassette case levels the playing field between the music made by everyone from yesteryear’s pop superstars and classical composers to the burgeoning basement bands of today.

Take Girlfriends, for instance–a garage pop trio from Boston who have released several cassette tapes in conjunction with seven inch vinyls and CDs.

“Even the most professionally recorded songs are going to sound a little crunchy and wobbly after a few listens on cassette. Shit, Beethoven’s symphonies sound like Ariel Pink records on tape, so what the fuck?” observes Girlfriends drummer Andy Sodoway, on the appeal of cassette tapes in terms sound quality.

“We’re not audiophiles and neither are 80% of the people who buy music,” says Sean Bohrman, co-founder of Burger Records whose California-based store and label sells 100 cassettes for every CD.  “We buy scratched records, we release the lowest of lo-fi music; but if the songs are strong and the peeps are real then that will shine through the lowest quality sounds.”

For those who lose sleep over such sonic discrepancies, Borhman assures that all of Burger’s releases are mastered to the best of their ability. However, he concedes that doing so requires a little more TLC.

“Compared to CDs, it’s analog sounds, so it can be superior in sound if made with loving care. But it will never compare to a clean vinyl record. To us, that’s the most pristine of sounds!”

Then again sound quality, as has been said so often of aesthetic beauty, is in the ear of the beholder–or so would argue Zully Adler of Goaty Tapes, a prominent cassette-based label of experimental music that Adler began in his senior year of high school.

“Sound quality is multiplicitous, and every listening experience is different. This multiplicity is actually built into our listening experience: music is engineered in stereo such that the music sounds different from every possible listening angle,” explains Adler. “Live concerts by no means meet our expectations for audio clarity, and yet they remain the most poignant listening experiences.”

Others like producer, artist and Bridgetown Records owner Kevin Greenspon insist that, while all formats have their strengths and weaknesses, cassette tapes provide a distinct sonic advantage over even the all-holy vinyl record in some respects.

“A lot of records are mastered or cut pretty bad, too hot, or are listened to on systems with poor speakers or that don’t have a phono preamp, which corrects the equalization compensation that must be done in order for the music on the grooves to sound right,” Greenspon tells BTR. In lamens terms, when a record is said to be mixed ‘too hot’ (or over zero decibels) it often is punctuated by clipping noises that sound like a CD skip, even if you’re listening to a digital sound file or vinyl record.

In contrast, Greenspon explains, “When a tape is recorded ‘too loud’ or in the red, the tape can still handle a good amount of music past the threshold of zero decibels, and this overflow saturates in a musical manner pretty nicely.”

Like Borhman, Greenspon, who works tirelessly at manufacturing tapes for his label with his own two hands, contends that the extra attention to detail required to curate the desired sounds from a cassette allows artists and producers more room for creativity.

“Uploading MP3s to a hosting site doesn’t say much about what one has invested in the music. It’s so easy to send some digital files across the internet and let some company do the rest. Anyone already doing this could very well do it for music they don’t even care about and it wouldn’t cause them too much stress or effort,” he tells BTR. “Making cassette tapes requires the person releasing the music to be physically involved in the process by making volume levels appropriate, dubbing, cutting and scoring artwork, testing tapes and maintaining equipment. There’s not much reason to be putting all of your own time and energy into something that you have no connection to, so making the effort speaks about how the person releasing the music feels about it.”

For Girlfriends, a more hands-off approach to the process let the distortions on tape give them a bit more confidence in their first recordings.

“We’re figuring out what we want to sound like, and the tape aesthetic gave a sort of vague idea about how we started without giving away too much,” says Sodoway. “With the tape and it’s lack of fidelity, I think it was more that we were like ‘here are the songs, we’ll see where this goes, let’s not overthink this.'”

Preferences in control over tape hiss and peak volumes aside, no one can deny the cassette’s dirt-cheap market prices.

“Both [vinyl and CDs] sell for a bunch of money, we sell our tapes for $5 in person and $6 online. The affordable nature of the cassette makes people take chances on new music and music they wouldn’t check out because the formats are too expensive,” says Bohrman. “Then if they like the cassette hopefully they’ll check out the LP or CD!”

Though the members of Girlfriends cite the format’s frugal manufacturing costs (about $2 for a printed cassette with a screen printed cover, compared to $3 for seven inch singles and $4 for the average jewel-cased CD)  as one of the primary reasons for it’s popularity and their use of it, guitarist and songwriter Ben Petroykus described cassettes as “comparable” to CDs in terms of inexpensiveness. As a collectable, however, Sodoway tells BTR there’s no competition.

“With the CDs, the kids play ’em on their iPod players and then throw em in the trash, so why even bother?” says Sodoway. “But with the cassette, it’s in cool colors and they want to save it and put it on the eBay later.  We give ’em a link so they can still play the tape on their iPod players.  So really, it all works out, all the bases are covered.”

“Cassettes have a physical intimacy and immediacy that draws in the listener in a way that mp3s do not,” explains Adler.  Though the entrepreneur notes that he doesn’t use cassettes as a reaction to mp3s.

However for Adler, that intimacy refers to the product itself. Cassettes, unlike CDs and vinyl records are less bulky, pocket-sized and easy to carry while riding your bike to DIY shows.  In contrast to producers like Greenspon who feel that because cassette tapes don’t allow the listener to skip around tracks as easily as other formats they force them to listen to the music more closely, Adler contends the opposite is be true.  Since the fast forward and rewind capabilities of a cassette limit how easily a listener can rummage through its contents, Adler explains, the music instead becomes a part of the listener’s living space rather than the focus of their attentions.

“You’re not inclined to listen to it closely as much as you are forced to listen less closely and handle your business while the music is playing,” says Adler. “In this way, cassettes enable music to become a non-specialized activity.”

Either way, the cassette lends itself to lengthened listening, which is to say the format is tailor made for an album-oriented market of music fans who don’t like skipping to the singles. Naturally, cassettes have not only found a home with song-driven underground acts like Girlfriends but even more so with noisier, more abstract and experimental artists that can be found on Bridgetown, Burger, Goaty and Eggy Records.

Eggy Records founder, Raf Spielman, elaborates on the idiosyncrasies of the cassette’s new niche community.

“The music that gets released in small editions by tape labels is very different than the music that gets released on big labels and the difference has largely to do with the audience,” says Spielman. “A lot of the people that buy and listen to tapes are either making music themselves or somehow involved in the music or arts community, and that’s the audience it’s created for. I would say that there is a shared understanding about what to expect from a cassette release and how to listen to it.  The emphasis is less on presenting a fully developed, polished work than about the exploration of ideas; playing with sounds and techniques and subject matter.”

In the wake of the recent announcement for Apple’s upcoming iCloud service, the latest in the cloud technology craze that will soon allow users to ditch their harddrives in favor of streaming their media to mobile devices from a corporate network service, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge the future sustainability of the cassette tape and its culture. Since discovering a second-life in the era of downloading, could the shift towards increased digitalization of music mean even broader growth under the collective noses of the mainstream music industry? Opinions vary.

“I don’t think this will have any effect on people who already listen to tapes, and honestly I don’t even think it’s a good service at all,” says Greenspon. “It further devalues music into a new tier of non-descript files. You can swap all the Kanye West singles you want on the iCloud, but you’re not going to find many albums by underground or niche artists working with tapes. These artists aren’t looking to bomb the public with their recordings for exposure, but instead choose tapes because of the type of listener that is associated with them, which is often someone that already has an interest in their particular style or someone that wants to hear and experience albums in their intended form rather than a zip file.”

Adler, however, takes a more fatalistic stance.

“To be honest, cassettes have no longevity to speak of. They were relegated to the periphery years ago, and our subculture has been able thrived because cassettes were rejected by the mainstream. And because they continue to depreciate in value before they depreciate in access,” says the label owner. “Why do we use cassettes? Because cassettes are cheap. Why are they cheap? Because nobody else wants them. But once the last cassettes and duplicators have been sold by major labels and megachurches to local DIY kids, then the resources dry up and there’s nothing left.”

For others still it’s the art, not the medium–the message, not the envelope it comes in–that matters.

“I really like Ben’s lyrics and I think he writes some good Songs with a capital S.  I have been writing a bit more for the band these days, and I strive for the same thing: songs that can stand on their own but be enhanced by the production, the presentation,” says the ambitious Sodoway.

“Cassette tape culture will thrive as long as we put out good music,” muses Borhman. “People want to hold things in their hand, they want physical things, so digital won’t take away from the cassette thing. We use the internet to sell and hype our releases, through digital releases of our music we are able to let people know what to expect when they buy the cassette. Working hand in hand with all formats is the way of the future, merging everything, making it all available, satisfying all the want of the people who love music and getting all of these awesome sounds that would have otherwise been lost to time, in the ears and hands of as many people as we can!”