Pretty much everyone can agree the compact disc is a dying format, but fans still like to have something tangible to hold on to. That’s part of the reason why artists like AMANDA PALMER are releasing new albums on limited edition vinyl. “I had the idea to do a non-CD release around the time Who Killed Amanda Palmer came out [in 2008],” says Palmer. “I was on a world tour promoting it, and wherever I went, I was talking to fans who knew all the words to all the songs, but who never ordered or bought the physical CD because it was so poorly distributed. But they all had internet access. I was truly seeing the connection between YouTube, torrent—and file-sharing in general—and ticket sales. That's around when I said, ‘The CD isn't dying. It's dead.’ I'm happy to print up CDs for the last remaining fans who want them for their cars and whatnot, but I don't expect the medium to hang on for too much longer.”
For many indie bands and smaller labels, the next logical step forward seems to be taking two giant technological steps back. There are now dozens of boutique labels (Woodsist, Leftist Nautical Antiques, Arcade Sound Limited and Scotch Tapes) catering to cassette fans. While it's not a brand new development, cassette releases have mostly been confined to esoteric noise and experimental genres. But more traditional indie rock acts have taken notice. THE SECRET HANDSHAKE released a cassette single this year. O PIONEERS!!! released their most recent album, Neon Creeps, on every format they could (stopping just short of 8-track cartridges, although they did consider it). This year, FREE ENERGY put out Stuck On Nothing on vinyl as well as cassette. Even veterans like CAVE IN have gotten in on the act over the years. The list goes on and on.
So what's the reasoning behind this? Are new cassette releases strictly for serious collectors and trend-conscious bands and music fans? Or are there people out there who really still have cassette players? Free Energy frontman PAUL SPRANGERS says part of the appeal is to cater to those who aren’t exactly on the cusp of new technology—which include touring bands. “Our van has a tape deck, so we buy and listen to tapes,” he says. “Most of our peers in bands have tape decks, too. So if we play with a good band, we can give them a tape. When other bands give us their CD, it gets lost and not listened to. People still have tape players in their cars and tell us they rock our tape all the time.” ERIC SOLOMON of O Pioneers!!! concurs. “A lot of people I know still have shitty cars with tape players,” he says.
Last summer, Cave In vocalist/guitarist STEPHEN BRODSKY bought a used car with a tape deck, and it ended up taking him on a journey through his musical past. “This prompted me to scrounge around for old, home-recorded four-track cassette masters that no longer had any use,” he says. “I dubbed over them with records stored deep within my laptop. Driving around town, I found myself falling hard for stuff that I loved years ago all over again. Going from iTunes to dirty old tapes is one of the most backward technological transitions I've ever made. But in doing so, the rediscovery factor was well worth it.”
Aside from the availability of tape decks in older model cars, it might seem like releasing music on cassette and vinyl is a crafty way of sidestepping the problem of music being shared on the internet. But for most of the labels, that doesn’t seem to be part of the reasoning. “Speaking for ourselves, it has nothing to do with internet piracy or MP3 degradation,” says SEBASTIAN COWAN of Arbutus Records, a Canadian label that’s released cassettes and vinyl for Grimes, Silly Kissers and Blue Hawaii. “Almost every cassette we've released has also been widely distributed and promoted as a free download. The cassette is the recording's representation in the physical world aesthetically, but economically, bands are able to sell something on tour. The free download offers unparalleled exposure for the artist, which ultimately does more for the band then any sales from a 'protected release.'”
WILLIAM CODY WATSON of Bathetic Records says the movement stems from a yearning for the past. “It's just a nostalgia thing for the most part,” he says. “That, and cassettes are a sturdy, solid format with a nice, warm sound.” While many audiophiles will scoff at listening to anything on cassette, Cowan thinks tapes get a bad rap. “People's personal home stereos or listening environments, laptop speakers and iPod headphones are a much larger limitation than the loss of sound quality on a quarter-inch cassette tape,” he says. Canadian artist TEEN DAZE, who has released music on both vinyl and cassettes, finds a familiar comfort in the lower-fi mediums. “I've always thought that the first time you spin a record, it sounds better than a CD or an MP3,” he says. “But I'm the sort of listener who loves the sound of the crackle overtop an old record or the warble of an old cassette.”
That same old-school technology would likely limit the music's availability to be traded for free online. But Solomon of O Pioneers!!! says he doesn't care about losing money through the internet—for smaller bands and labels, the primary concern is simply getting the music heard. “We gave the last record away for free and still sold around 1,000 copies of the LP,” he says. “So neither of those had an effect on the decision to seek out dead formats. I've just always thought cassette tapes were cool.”
But why are cassettes returning to popularity now? Retro fetishizing is part of it. Nostalgia for youth is another. Think of cassettes and vinyl like fixed-gear bicycles. They aren't as practical to use as some alternatives and they don't always ride as well, but there's something to be said for blatantly thumbing your nose at technology and latching your style persona to the past. Cave In included the phrase, “Old formats die hard” in the liner notes of a recent cassette single. “It simply refers to the idea that nostalgia can be a very powerful thing,” says Brodsky. “Some people who grew up with vinyl and cassettes still like having the ability to hold physical copies of their favorite music. Some of my first experiences releasing music were via cassettes dating back to high school. In those days, it was the only accessible format for a musician with a paper route salary.”
So maybe it comes down to money after all. Bands find tapes to be an affordable compromise, and a quick way to put out a product for tour without going into debt. “We were about to do a tour and our full- length wasn't out,” says LUIS DUBUC of the Secret Handshake. “The label suggested we make 7-inch vinyl copies and sell them ourselves, but I decided, ‘What better way than to make a cassette single?’ I think to do a wide release of a tape would be a challenge, but on a smaller, tour-only scale it’s easy to do. The cost is relatively cheap and the turnaround [can be] within a week.”
Mike Sniper of Captured Tracks agrees with that logic. “I think sometimes things are released only on cassette for financial reasons, like the label or artist can't afford CDs or vinyl, but they still want to make a tangible object that has music on it,” he says. “We do cassettes because our fans seem to like the format, so we make them available at $5 each.” Teen Daze warns artists not to go overboard with their unconventional production runs. “I don’t think there’s a big enough audience of consumers for cassettes yet,” he says. “It’s smart to keep it at 100 [copies] or less just to make sure you don’t dig yourself into a financial hole.”
Watson thinks that urge to purchase a physical representation of the music is a motivating factor as well. “People want rare, handmade, limited things,” he says, and Dubuc is on his side. “We found that a lot of the people buying tapes don’t even have tape players,” he says. “But they want cassettes as an alternative to other pieces of stupid merch like wristbands or shorts.” Teen Daze sees it as a way to force listeners to more deeply engage with the music. “I want to give the listener something that exists physically, outside of their computer,” he says. “A cassette, a record, even a CD demand a physical response; physically taking the tape or record and putting it on as opposed to just clicking.”
Solomon sees unique formats as art forms on their own. “When bands take the time and effort to release their music in weird formats, people actively seek it out as a little piece of modern history,” he says. “When bands like Fucked Up put out stuff on crazy formats, I'm always looking to see how they did it, because you can tell they went out of their way and took the time and effort to see it through. I think it shows dedication in the art maker as well as the buyer, for making a market for things like 8-tracks or cassettes. Because in all honesty, if we were to make an 8-track tape, who would listen to it? But it would be a cool decorative piece or a great conversation starter.” Dubuc thinks that the cassette might be this generation's vinyl. “It's such a silly medium, but it's fun. Give it a couple years and Urban Outfitters will be selling Walkmans.”