The Way We Listened Then

Have you read that, yet? Okay, now read this: “Reconsidering the Revival of Cassette Tape Culture,” by PopMatters’ Calum Marsh.

If the idea of a “cassette tape revival” completely freaks you out, then think back to our July 2009 interview with Thurston Moore, guitarist of Sonic Youth. When the conversation turned to preferred music formats, Moore, a fan of the vinyl LP, admitted to finding the most new music via cassette tape:

I’m really into bands who put out stuff on cassette only. There’s still a cassette underground that puts out a lot of the best music I hear.

These are strong words, coming from someone who is a founding member of one of our most innovative and influential rock bands. And it was sort of a shock. Cassettes?

As soon as I read it, though, I started seeing the colorful, plastic cases everywhere I went. Walk into Hospital Productions, clairvoyants of dark and heavy cool, and you’ll find an entire floor-to-ceiling wall of cassettes, released by bands with names like These Feathers Have Plumes, Chaos Majik, and A Murder of Angels. Or visit Fusetron, or Hanson Records. Or walk into Brooklyn’s Academy Annex or Desert Island. You’ll find tapes. And tapes. Or, for that matter, check out Period Tapes, releasing exciting new music from Anthony Mangicapra’s Hoor-paar-Kraat and Sarah Lipstate’s Noveller. This isn’t what you might think: These are heady, meticulously crafted pieces from young, forward-thinking artists. Released on cassette.

But why? Why cassette?

That’s the question Calum Marsh tries to answer. And I think he does a very good job at tackling it. His conclusion seems practical enough:

At best, the cassette revival is merely a vacuous fad of no genuine value; but at worst, it’s a confused, regressive cultural misstep more dangerous than most would care to admit. There is danger here, and despite the intentions of its advocates, this is a trend that’s less a tribute to the DIY mentality than a betrayal of its basic premise.

Clearly Marsh feels there are better avenues for artists to explore—an undeniably fine point. But I can’t help from feeling that Marsh is somehow, albeit slightly, mistaken: The artists have some say in this, no doubt. And if they have decided to communicate their art through cassette tape, then there will inevitably be those of us—as music lovers, mind you, and not as audiophiles—who acknowledge the inherent value of that art. And, perhaps it is not a mistake to trudge about in confused, regressive steps. Maybe it's exactly what we should be doing. After all, isn’t that what the world around us is doing?

We are lost (aren’t we?), searching for something to hold onto, waiting for the next strong light, struggling to keep up. In the meantime, we are flooded by extraordinary art, and I feel a responsibility to appreciate it while it lasts. But what I want to know is this: When was the last time something like this happened? When was there such an explosion of new, outstanding art, and what were the circumstances? When my friends and I discuss the greatest, most adventurous time for popular music, we find ourselves always turning to the late 1960s, and especially, 1969. Think about what was happening then. First Woodstock, then Altamont; albums released include: The Band; The Stooges; The Velvet Underground; Led Zeppelin; Yes; Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma; The Bee Gees’ Odessa; Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline; Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde; Let It Bleed; Abbey Road; Tommy; this could go on for a very long time. WTF?

What was going on in the music industry back then? Music cassettes were first introduced to the US market in September 1966. Through the 1970s, cassettes battled for space alongside the popular vinyl LP. Along the way, the 8-track tape came in to muddle everything up. In the 1980s, with the arrival of the Sony Walkman and all the convenience it provided, cassettes gained a dominant market position. There are many comparisons to be drawn between that music cassette and today’s MP3. What am I trying to say? I’m not sure, but I hope you’ll help me figure this out. In any case, we are living through a confused, confusing time, and I’m beginning to think we should embrace that confusion, in the best possible way.

So. I’ve been considering making a purchase. Or better: an investment. In addition to a good tube amp, I’m thinking about a new source. Something like the Nakamichi CD-1.

“CD” stands for “Cassette Deck,” in case you were wondering. Funny.

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Bottomfeeders R us's picture

Deer Oppo! What a surprize! U know who we R don'ch u! so that's about it. I pretty much used all the words I know by now. But that's ok. Ok then, bye!PS I love tapes. the problem is they don't fly as smooth as records do... but! there are endless possobilities to tie oneself!

Clifford Kiracofe's picture

I agree with the point that the artist has every right to present his/her/their work in the medium of their choice: cassette, cd, vinyl. Marsh's rather more strident than coherent polemic while interesting was not persuasive IMO. He seems rudely dismissive of artists and seems contemptuous their freedom to create. He does not convincingly address, for example, the issues of the quality of sound or the quality of the experience. And then there are considerations of enjoyment for the audio hobbyist who likes analog and browsing bins for old vinyl and cassettes. MP3 may be convenient for some but there are well known shortcomings. I have several systems at home and play vinyl, cds, and cassettes and also listen to FM. In the living room, a trusty Revox B215 running through a late sixties Mac MA6100 integrated brings a grin to guests with its greenish glow and tape turning as music moves through the room...If those indie music folks want to present their art on cassette they have every right to go for it.

DLKG's picture

I hate to be like this but c'mon cassette tape sucked from day 1!! When I was a kid and didn't have the playback system to hear a great difference between Lp and cassette I still knew I wouldn't waste my money on those things. That's how bad most of them sounded compared to the record. I did make mix tapes with cassettes but that's all we had that was portable. Now I still make mix discs from Lp's to CD. Lp is still, to me, the King of formats!

david's picture

This is for all the folks who posted saying they have a nakamichi that sounds soso. You need to get that deck cleaned and aligned! Most naks have freqency response that's flat up to 21kHz. If you're iffy above 13k you've got problems.As for a cassette revival in general. After R2R cassettes have the best quality sound reproduction of any of the easily distributable non-virtual formats. Nobody mentions one of the big issues with digital distribution -- musicians get ripped off -- even worse than before! And apple gets richer. Very few people buy mp3s. CDs are ripped automatically when you put them in a computer. At least with a cassette the perp has to make a concious and concerted effort to disrespect the artist.Cassettes will stay niche. One has to have priorities that are a lot different from the mass consumers to value the benefits that tapes have over mp3. But if you prefer underground art, quality over quantity, DIY, and freedom from corporate influence tapes have a lot to offer.

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