By now, you’re probably well aware of that vinyl albums have continued to sell (and gain popularity) even in this post-MP3, streaming music era. But a new report from FastCompany titled Music’s Weird Cassette Tape Revival Is Paying Off, recently noted that there’s been an odd resurgence in sales of cassette tape-based music in the past year. In the article, John Paul Titlow is quick to attempt to dispel the notion that the renewed interest in this fossil is simply analog hipsterism, citing that the format offers very real, practical benefits for budding artists as well as being embracing anew by well-established artists.
But I’m just as quick to call BS on this. I believe it is all about hipsterism.
Ok, ok, vinyl, I sorta get. Many audiophiles have long favored LPs over other formats, arguing that vinyl albums boast more warmth or a “rounder” sound due to the inclusion of super- and sub-frequencies that may be more perceived than actually heard. I suspect that most of those die-hard vinyl fans are really clinging to the format for mostly non-qualitative reasons. Nostalgia. Tactility. The cover art. Especially for us digital immigrants, LP music imparts more of a “wholeness” to it because it is concrete thing — you can feel, care for, and respectfully handle a vinyl album. There’s something to be said for the physicality of placing a record on the turntable and setting the needle — listening to an LP evoked a connection to your music that I’m not sure you can get with digital, regardless of how enjoyable the actual content is.
Mark Browm suggested that the revived interest in vinyl has more to do with the absence of DRM than anything else. But the motivation for studios to make the effort to encrypt their music has almost entirely waned, especially with streaming becoming the main way so many people get their music now. Once a very hot button issue, music “ownership” is no longer something most listeners even think about.
And really, digital media bests vinyl recordings soundly (rimshot!) by any objective criteria, including dynamic range, frequency response, noise floor, and channel separation, to name a few. Certainly, cassette tapes never even approached the audio quality of vinyl, much less digital music.
One undeniably cool thing about cassettes was making mixtapes. I remember fondly my first “boombox” portable player that had dual cassettes! Recording a mixtape required considerable effort, a lot of forethought, and a dash of skill. I made boatloads of mixtapes — often with accompanying custom J-cards for the cassette box — and it was a very personal thing. A mixtape was a labor of love. And because of the sequential nature of cassettes, the listener was all but forced to listen to your custom music compilation in the order that you intended.
In the post-cassette years, I burned CD versions of mixtapes. (Yeah, the term “mixdisc” does exist, but it never caught on.) Most of my CDs featured carefully-affixed custom labels (‘cuz scrawling across the disc with a Sharpie was just plain lazy) and the artwork of my home-brewed discs rivaled commercially-produced CDs. Certainly, the mixdisc offered the opportunity for lots more artwork, both on the media itself and the jewel case inner and front inserts. And with a physical disc, while there was less assurance that the listener would do so, it was still fairly likely that your carefully-selected anthology would be experienced in the intended sequence at least once.
However, in the MP3 era, this all went right out the window. Sure, you could still compile an assortment of files for your friends, but it lacked the same creative punch that a carefully-curated mixtape had. And with purely digital music, there’s nothing to force or even encourage the listener to play the tracks in any prescribed order. Gone too is any physical vestiges of music — digital music isn’t a thing, but more of an abstract concept.
So, FastCompany’s article posits that mixtapes are a viable way for up and coming musicians to cheaply produce small batches of their albums. But I insist that creating a CD is easier, less expensive, and the resulting product is far more accessible — how long has it been since you owned a car or home stereo equipped with a cassette player? Or maybe you’re still lovingly clinging to your circa-1979 Sony WalkMan?
For that matter, who among us still has a DiscMan?
So, I’m sticking with “hipsterism” as the key motivator for those stuck on tape.
What do you think?