Why Cassettes?

I was introduced to Scotch Tapes, “the worst hi-tech music label ever,” on December 9, by a Twitter post from Jagjaguwar. Oneida would be releasing a limited-edition cassette through Scotch Tapes. This was interesting news to me, first because I’ve been fascinated with the idea of a “cassette tape revival,” and second because Oneida is a well-established name in the world of underground rock bands. Why would Oneida release work on a format that had been all but forgotten by the music industry? Why cassettes?

As soon as I had asked myself the stupid question, the obvious answer came to me: Why not? Then I went to the Scotch Tapes site, took a look at the Oneida cassette, and was hit by another obvious answer: It’s really cool. A live set taken from a 2002 performance in Italy, the Oneida release is an explosion of color and sound, limited to just a handful of copies. Like many of Scotch Tapes’ offerings, it sold out in just a few days.

Browsing The Tape Store, I tripped over several strange, wonderful band names: My Cell Phone Is Better Than Your Cell Phone (MCPIBTYCP), Tayside Mental Health, Whore Business, Crappy Dracula, Coconut Coolouts, Terror Bird. I was intrigued! A quick visit to several of these bands’ Myspace pages confirmed that I’d stumbled upon something special. Three days passed before I could tear myself away from Terror Bird’s dark, damaged piano lines and otherworldly vocals. An e-mail exchange with label owner, Al Bjornaa, reinforced my feeling that this sudden wave of cassette tapes wasn’t really a “revival,” but an overdue acknowledgement of a culture that never really left.

On October 8, Scotch Tapes celebrated its one year anniversary. In a Myspace blog post, Bjornaa discusses the joys of exceeding expectations, working with his heroes, and making new friends. I get the sense that running an independent cassette tape label in 2009 is an especially fulfilling endeavor, one that fosters meaningful relationships and provides both manufacturer and consumer with an obvious sense of pride. These are, after all, handmade goods: colorful, creatively packaged, and with artwork often designed by the musicians themselves. For a certain type of collector and fan, the limited-edition cassette tape provides a heightened connection to a favorite band. Because of this, cassettes, like vinyl LPs, may very well result in greater art. Unlike with compact discs, the listener cannot easily skip from track to track. Unlike with downloads, songs are inextricably tied to albums. Albums, at their best, are complete thoughts, each song a chapter of a novel or a face in a photograph. The nature of the limited-edition cassette tape strengthens the bond between song and album, as well as that between artist and audience. But I’m afraid I’m getting all highfalutin about it. In a response to the PopMatters’ feature, “Reconsidering the Revival of Cassette Tape Culture,” Al Bjornaa makes a simple case for the value of cassettes:

People seem to dig tapes. Can’t that be a good enough reason for keeping them around?

Can’t it?

At the start of my revitalized interest in cassettes, I posted a thread in our forum. First, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for what seemed to be an exciting, albeit small, development in the music industry. Second, I wondered if we could come up with ideas as to why such an old, impractical technology would be embraced today. The predictable animosity ensued, but in that animosity, something else became clear: Cassettes, as capsules for expression and communication, do an extremely good job of hitting their targets. That is, through cassettes, artists speak almost directly to their intended audience; others won’t care, or will remain unaware of the art’s existence. And there’s something simple and pure about that. In all of the contempt for a harmless, old-fashioned format, some people seemed to forget the most important thing: music. I asked the question, “If your favorite musician released a new piece of work on cassette, in unique, hand-designed packaging, limited to 50 copies, would you want to own it?”

The cynics offered no response. I guess that means “No.” Unless it means “Yes.” But whatever.

Of course there’s something else involved. The choice to release and listen to music on cassette is to some degree a statement against modern technology. Visit the Myspace page for Al Bjornaa’s solo project, MCPIBTYCP, and you’ll find the following statement:

MY CELL PHONE IS BETTER THAN YOUR CELL PHONE thinks technology needs to be taken in smaller doses. The Human Race is becoming an actual race...with no real end and no real prize.

And that’s a sentiment I find very attractive. Technology is moving faster than most people can handle. When does technology become redundant? If we can’t keep up with it, does it matter? If it’s superseded by the time we've discovered it, should we even bother? What’s the point of being on the cutting edge, if little on the cutting edge lasts very long? I’ve always said that I’m simply searching for something that lasts; whether it be art, music, or relationships, quality lasts. Certain audiophiles may question my allegiance to sound, but high-end audio is about nothing if not quality—quality sound, yes, but also quality experiences, in general.

Sound isn’t everything.

While I can easily imagine the future of music being filled with digital downloads, streamers, and servers, I have no reason to expect that artists will ever choose convenience or practicality over quality. And the artists that I most admire are those that refuse to relinquish control of their work. Instead, they demand to do it themselves. And as an active listener, I have no problem with searching out those artists. The rewards are great. And, sure, I’m choosing to add more stuff to my home, but stuff is only clutter when it’s of no value. Cassette tapes, then—on average, seven or eight bucks a piece—are beautiful pieces of art that offer an extraordinary level of quality and promise to provide lasting enjoyment. I’m looking forward to discovering outstanding new music through the cassette tape format, adding quality to my life, even if it means I’m being old-fashioned.

scotch tapes's picture

i think you captured the reasons behind cassette culture as well as anyone who has posted on sites like this. the whole musical experience isn't only tied to sound quality. i think music quality is far more important. the latest black eyed peas album could sound like jesus did the mastering in heaven but if the music is still shit (which it probably is...) i am not going to listen to it. thanks for focusing on scotch tapes and cassettees in general. Al BjornaaScotch Tapes

alex's picture

great article. so glad i read it. totally agree with al, you really highlighted the beautiful aspects of tape labels and their relationships to the artists + the listeners. definitely what its all about. viva cassette tapes, scotch tapes, good music and good people! : )

Marlo Eggplant's picture

what i really like about this article is the ability of the cassette tape to be a vehicle of a musician's whole vision - from the artwork to the traditional mastering of the music. i think it is also representative of the persistence/endurance of underground music with the economy. as listeners' we still want to be as close to the musician as possible and this medium allows that intimacy.thank you for the article.and yes, al does good work....there are a couple of choice underground tape labels out there. open your eyes everyone!

sfw's picture

good article; especially the last paragraph

Mike Mercer -'s picture

Hey Stephen,Been a fan of the blog for a while now. Anything with a dedicated following has value, but that value IS more the art - which may not always pay the bills - but if the music is good (for me) and casette is the only format - sh-- I'm outta luck.BUT - I still do have mt TASCAM 122MKII in case, and will keep it!!! got a top five list of your fav cassettes??

Marco's picture

Great article. Kinda makes me regret selling, then giving away my tapes upon moving into my new Apt. Well, at least I kept my yellow Bad Brains tape for nostalgic purposes...

Paul S.'s picture

Wonderful article, Stephen! It seems like these days technology is being shoved at us more and more everyday. I actually find the cassette tape revival to be exciting. I can't say the same about the latest cell phones, televisions, game consoles...to be honest I'm tired of hearing about those things. I groan every time another cell phone commercial comes on and these days every other commercial is for a cell phone. What's worse is that now the audiophile community expects me to be excited about downloading 1's and 0's from the internet and playing them on something called a "server". Puke! Sounds pretty soulless to me. I know I'm probably just being crotchety but something is being lost in this haze of technology and that something is called "quality." And I'm not just talking about quality from a technical standpoint but quality experiences. Digital files are like ghosts. We can never really know that they actually exist. Cassette tapes[really any physical medium]is right there in your hand. That's Soul!

Wanderlust2000's picture

Its soul at best.   Its materialism at worst.  The digital guy (me?) may counter that his music is not for decoration.  It cant be displayed or flaunted.  It can only be heard.  Of course the digital guy (not me) may flaunt his iPhone...  Puke!  And the analog guy may flaunt his deck or 'table...  Cool! Can i work it? Lets play some music bro!

Mathieu's picture

It's always a pleasure reading your articles, I feel the same way about how new technologies can be great and terrible at the same time. I mean I never heard so much great music and it's thanks to Internet and mp3s. On the other hand it's like "it's a new technology, it's great, so use it and throw the rest away !" and I am glad some people just say no, we love our LPs and cassettes with their great artwork and their real, physical presence. I am one of these people and I wish many others will join us.

kev313's picture

Being a child a cassette culture (born in 75), I remember them fondly. Wait, no. No, I really don't. Mix tapes and tapes from your buddies in bands were fun, but other than that, I don't remember anything really good about them. I love the idea of a cassette as an object of art, but that idea is distinct from the idea of a cassette as a good delivery system for music. Sound quality of all mediums aside, artists have far better options to "get the music out there". Given the lack of cassette players these days, it may be one of the worst ways to have your music heard.eh...I just think there are better options. Having been a victim of the Wicker Park scene in my youth I could also see that the cassette is for the kids who are now too cool for vinyl. (The same fickle factor that makes me worry about the vinyl revival itself).

scotch tapes's picture

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article6960700.eceman... this discussion is everywhere these days! who knew so many people felt so strongly about tapes?i really want to thank stephen for writing about this on this site. i know most readers of stereophile are adamantly anti-tape but i appreciate this debate being discussed openly on here.alwww.scotchtapes.ca

john devore's picture

"Sound isn't everything"I couldn't agree more. A couple of weeks ago at a party I was admiring a magnificent pair of speakers from the early 60s and another audiophile commented on how unsophisticated they sounded (not his actual words). I replied, "Sound isn't everything." He looked a bit dumbfounded.

john devore's picture

That said, if you believe much of string theory, everything is sound.

The Audio Dufus's picture

I(We, or Us) would have to partially agree with some of your thoughts---there is a huge difference between producing detailed SOUNDS and making a MUSICAL EXPERIENCE. Too many times I've listened to much hyped ELECTRONICS that can accurately reproduce the squeek of a leather shoe, but fail HORRIBLY and MISERABLY reproducing a moving PERFORMANCE. But...cassette, or better termed caHISSette---isn't the answer. Neither is 8-track, Reel to Reel, but Sony SuperBetaMax would be an acceptable alternative. Recording studios are dying off in droves with the emergence of SUPERB home studio software---let's get the bands to use this instead of tape. But, unfortunately the bands that are making cassettes aren't trying to appeal to a mainstream audience---to be cool you need to be a rebel---that's the bottom line. Don't keep cramming stuff into your home, it's called Hoarding Disorder. Please don't tell us you have a path through your living room. It's not too late...

Nathan's picture

if I had a dollar for every album with projectile rainbows on it...

Freeman's picture

Is there irony in the a band taking an anti-technology posture and publicizing that stand via a blog? Which is more "cutting edge" technologically, the compact disc or myspace? Which one is cooler to stand apart from?The answer: the CD.Which is actually more representative of contemporary culture?The answer: myspace.

Rick's picture

In my experience the Dragon, BX-300, DR1, RX-505 along with the Pioneer classic silver CT-F1250 could make tapes that were excellent. (Using quality Type II or IV tape stock)The Pioneer admittedly had a finicky transport....

DGD's picture

Cassettes? Hell, Cheap Trick's latest, The Latest, is available on 8-track: http://cheaptrick.shop.musictoday.com/Product.aspx?cp=10_21036&pc=CTAM64#

MB Miller's picture

I never could quite understand that with the advent (no pun intended) of CD's, so many people who should have known better got rid of their LP's, cassettes, open reels, etc? But that's another story.I, for one, kept all of the above and continue to enjoy listening to the music they each produce in their own way.At one time or other I have owned virtually every brand and model of cassette deck and when I purchased my last car which had a CD player only, went out and found an original factory player that took both CD's and cassettes. I've never had a problem with their quality and as a matter of fact, many of them sound better than at home.

bob D. Stuckiez's picture

Before buying one of these, think of the poor injured children in Haiti and see if you can see it in your heart to throw a c-note their way. Ciao, Bob

jdb's picture

Even if sound quality *was* everything, cassettes can easily hold their own. Real time recorded cassettes made with good tape on quality decks can sound very fine indeed, close to reel to reel.

PR's picture

To alex: the plural for "viva" is "vivan"...

Will's picture

Exactly, most of these blog cites fail to dispel the rumor that cassettes sound like crap. They actually sound just fine. CD sounds like crap if you have bad equipment. So does SACD. If you have a quality cassette deck then you are golden. There are plenty of cassettes (prerecorded or homemade) that have quality audio on them. Then it's just an effort to pull the music off them. That is where quality engineering saves you, to get real music off the somewhat marginal (but NOT horrible) cassette medium. Part of the "fun" is to have a real quality experience in the cassette world. It's not all a cerebral, Waiting for Godot, absurdist type of thing -- at least not to the point of sacrificing the music. The music CAN survive on tape.

Soothsayerman's picture

Yeah I mean why did 8-Track go away?!  You could use it as a coaster for a properly large mug or glass, they were large enough that you could pretend you were carrying a small book in your hand, you could use it as a weapon since it was meaty enough AND the space for album artwork was H-U-G-E by cassette standards.  Plus, some of the nicest people you will EVER meet had Eight Track Cassette Players in the Cars.  I read a study somewhere that said that people with Eight Track Cassette Players in their Cars were 22% more likely to help strangers than those that didn't.  I mean come on! Hop on the retro-hip wagon!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Good music is always in style.

Wanderlust2000's picture

What about DAT?  LOL   ..claimed by neither camp I guess.  ;) Half-elves have it rough.

The article hits it:  its about the musical experience, of which 'sound quality' is but a component.  I also mostly choose to experience music in the Album format, when Time allows.  Usually, if time doesnt allow, I choose another activity than music listening.  ( I also never watch movies 5 or 10 minutes at a time... I mean, really..)  I choose to get my music exclusively digitally, for whatever reasons, that dont really matter to anyone else but me.  Just because digital allows me to easily skip tracks, artists, etc, 95% of the time I dont.  I wish the majority of digital music consumers would resist that urge, and become music lovers.  I am still usually trying to find and maintain that bond between the artist, their art, and myself, the same way most would do on cassette or vinyl, only I can begin selected playback much quicker is all. And my recording won't degrade based on how many times I have enjoyed it!  I guess I just use digital as way to get that stereotypical analog experience, minus the drawbacks.  I prefer a hard disk over soft vinyl to be spinning it, but I think about all that before the playback begins.  When the music's playing, don't you dare bring up things like format, flutter or jitter!

BUT, if my fav artist released 50 copies of a special work, then I'd be pretty sure the artist doesnt really want me to have it at all, or else (s)he would have kept making them and not stopped at 50.  I needn't dodge,parry,spin my way into possession, lest I begin to feel I'm working for their amusement.  They work for mine, and I appreciate it, and that's why I pay them and tell all my friends about them.