Music by any other delivery would sound as sweet
…if not sweeter
When I first heard cassettes had made a bit of a comeback as a format for release, it was largely neither here nor there to me. It wasn’t something I had noticed, and while I have a few tapes about the place, I haven’t had the means to play them for a number of years. However, the more I delve into indie/underground scenes, both on home territory (Australia) and overseas, the more I find that artists I take an interest in have released predominantly, or even exclusively, on cassette. Ah, suddenly it matters!
I took an exception to the latter instance, so I had to ask why? Both why I had a problem with it, and why it was happening in the first place. I have to wonder how such a choice best serves the artist’s work. Granted, for some of these artists their market is small no matter which format they choose to release on, but surely that’s all the more reason not to completely discount the formats favoured by the majority? I’m not talking about sales here, I’m talking about who actually gets to hear the music.
Is that the point, to be exclusionary? I doubt it, exclusive in a way, but not intentionally exclusionary. Anyone has the option to buy and play a cassette. If indeed there is any element of musical elitism behind these kinds of choices, I tend to think it’s the exception rather than the rule (“elitism” and “cassette” seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn‘t it?). But really, releasing on one type of format only – be it vinyl, cassette, CD or digital download could be seen (justifiably or not; I’m aware of issues of practicality and limitations not related to choice and preferences) as making a statement about the desire to exclude listeners from ever hearing the work if they don’t share the same aesthetic.
Personally, I also dislike iTune-only releases. Particularly if said release contains exclusive content not available with any subsequent physical versions. Any time, and I mean any time, there’s an inherent statement of “only people who have XXX (i.e. things other than money and a willingness to hand it over) can have YYY” coupled with a music release, my heckles rise just a ‘lil bit. I’m not so foolish as to not understand why it’s done, and they certianly don’t do it so I’ll like it; they do it in the hope that I want it enough to buy it regardless. I’ll admit some of my complaint stems from the fact that in these circumstances, I’m the one being excluded by my own reluctance to embrace “cassette culture”. So, I wanted to explore where that reluctance is coming from.
I began by researching what might be some of the reasoning behind the decision to release exclusively on cassette, just to see whether or not I could be swayed. There were certainly some valid points to be found, many of which I did agree with either in part or in principle. Nostalgia is a big one. Others have cited nostalgia towards cassettes as counter-productive to the progression of music and its distribution. I really don’t think it is. In fact I think nostalgia in itself is hugely important when, at the end of the day, we are talking about art, the way it’s presented, and how we identify with it on an immediate emotional level. I have, as a point of interest, been referred to as a “dinosaur” for preferring CDs over downloads.
True nostalgia is an ephemeral composition of disjointed memories
An homage to the mighty boom box by Australian duo Vitabeats
When I was growing up, tapes and vinyl were the only formats available. The day our household acquired its first Ghetto Blaster, the excitement was almost unparalleled. Music was portable, recordable at home, even! Friends made mixtapes for friends, boyfriends and girlfriends made mixtapes for each other, to the degree that it became symbolic, a definitive indication of one’s affections. I definitely remember the first Walkman I had, thinking I was the coolest thing around because I could ride my bike at the same time that I could listen to, and sing along with, Off the Wall. I was completely oblivious to the rest of the world, including any imminent traffic hazards. I ignored the grimaced reactions to my warbling (I could barely hear myself, so in my ears I had never sounded more awesome). The world was gone, it was just me and MJ, a direct and exclusive exchange between he and I. When I hit 15 and was attending boarding school, my Walkman became infinitely more important, only by that stage the “conversations” were between myself and The Doors or Led Zeppelin.
In those days, before CDs, MP3s and the subsequent ease of digital transmission, acquiring new music was an event. It was rarely – if ever – free. It had to be (for me at least) saved up for, you had to choose wisely, you received something tangible to hold and examine as you listened to your new favourite obsession. I may have eventually grown out of my bike, Michael Jackson/Jim Morrison fandoms and the love of hearing my own voice (ok, so I still harbour a bit of the last one) but these are the things that made me cherish music all the more. But therein lies the crux of my point – I cherished the music and the experiences I had with it, not the format that contained or transmitted it.
Which begs the question: why do I even care what format my music is on?
Actually, it’s not “just because”. I have a number of reasons for preferring CDs over other formats, to detail them all would extend this article by another 1000 words, so I’ll just leave it with the fact that it’s a love of craft beyond that of songwriting that keeps me preferring physical formats, and it’s a matter of practicality for the preference to be CD. Obviously, when entering the domain of personal preference, there needs to be a level understanding that I can not expect or demand my preferences to always be accommodated. Nor am I asking for the preferences of others to be dismissed. I want to make clear that while I don’t overly understand the preference for cassette, I have an affinity with some of the reasoning behind it and therefore respect it. What I am having difficulty with is an artist’s or label’s preference, sometimes downright insistence, for releasing on cassette only.
Most of the reasoning I found makes sense on the surface. They ranged from the practical (cassette releases are less likely to be leaked), to the simple (‘cassettes are cool’ ). Are cassettes less likely to be leaked, though? Probably, if you consider ‘leaked’ to be referring specifically to the music being made available on file sharing sites prior to the official release date. After that, cassettes are just as much fair game as any other release. The fact is that cassette releases are generally in pretty low numbers, couple that with the number of people simply uninterested in owning cassettes and voila, you have dedicated blogs offering ripped versions to download.
One of the more interesting reasons I found for favouring cassettes is the notion that listening to them essentially forces the listener to hear the release from beginning to end and in full, (i.e. no skipping, picking out favourites to download, setting your library to shuffle and so on). The idea being that the cassette, through the inherent inconvenience of quickly accessing favoured tracks, allows the entire album to be heard the way it was intended, and therefore – hopefully – appreciated. I understand this concept well enough, and out of all the reasons I found, it’s probably the only one that strikes a chord with me on a personal level as it speaks, in part, to my dislike of the disposability that accompanies file-based formats. My issue with it is a case of ‘sounds good in theory, unlikely to hold up in practice’.
The problem here is, with all the tools currently and readily available for consumers to easily convert their music libraries to digital formats, no matter what specific ideas one has about the presentation and delivery of music, you can no longer ensure that’s how it will be treated once in the hands of the listener. You can try and force them to take the time to listen to the album in full, but the vast majority of the time you won’t be able to when someone just wants to hear track 3 over and over. Does that mean you have to pander to that desire? Of course not, but the fact remains that a person is going to listen to the music they have the way they want to no matter how you deliver it to them. Let’s not forget that the arrival of home-recordable cassettes heralded that personal freedom for listeners. Suddenly, one was able to pick out their favourite songs from albums and, indeed, other cassettes, then record them individually to create a personal mix.
The most mind-boggling reason offered is that over time, as cassettes and their respective players wear out, the music takes on different ‘characteristics’ and it therefore makes the music sound and feel more organic. The inference there is that hearing the sound effects of decaying technology interfering with the music is preferable, perhaps even essential. I have no grasp whatsoever on the idea that these other sounds not meant to be a part of the recording – which to me obscure the listening experience rather than enhance it – somehow make the music warmer or more organic. At the end of the day, it suggests to me that if one prefers these other sounds and so on in order to effect a more personal resonance with the music being heard, it speaks to a disenchantment with music itself, and instead merely an enchantment with old machinery.
Ultimately, all formats can be described in the following (fairly generalised) manner: data, be it analogue or digital, housed on or within synthetic material. Personal preferences for one over the other, to see a format as giving more or less than that, can be cultivated in a variety of ways; by our history, our habits, what conveniences us and what gives us pleasure. Each format currently available has it’s own characteristics, pros and cons, and for most people the acquisition of a new album, particularly on a physical format, contains a certain level of ritualism. There are the obvious ones, which all physical formats lend themselves to - from the first time you hold it, look at the art, read the liner notes and lyrics (when available) to the first time you play it. I’m going to go ahead and assume vinyl is probably the clear winner for being able to provide the most overt sense of satisfaction in all of those instances. I honestly can’t see tapes offering the same kind of gratification from the process of sticking it in a deck and pressing play. Maybe that’s just me, though.
Status §ΨΜßΦ£$ ?
A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today.
Ok, so at the beginning of this article I said cassettes have made a comeback. That’s not quite true. What actually seems to have happened is that somewhere along the line they’ve garnered a bit of retro-chic and became more fashionable to a subgroup of people. I’d warrant that a fair portion of the resurging indie interest is largely amongst those looking for something a bit different now that vinyl no longer has the same underground associations it once did; in other words, it’s the new ‘cool’ thing to say you have now that everyone has got some vinyl. If you look at sales figures for mainstream releases, it’s obvious support for tapes is almost at the point of non-existence. It’s interesting to note that as mainstream support dwindles, the sub-culture gains in popularity, suggesting these things are cool for as long as they remain on the side of obscure. Check the image above, while some are functional, all of them are little more than fashion accessories; icons representative of a trend and scene participated in by a select few. I’m yet to find any reasonable argument to suggest cassettes themselves are now anything much more than that.
Some of the same things were said about vinyl decades ago, which is assuredly still supported strongly enough by the consumer market, thus those demands are provided for. I have high doubts the same circumstances or expectations can be applied to cassettes as they have few, if any, of the same advantages. Vinyl enthusiasts cite things like sound quality, appreciation for larger album art, easy manipulation (for DJ’s etc) and, of course, nostalgia as reasons behind the preference. One out of four is not likely to cut it. Nostalgia might be important, but in the long run practicality and convenience almost always prevail. Quality definitely does, which is where standard cassettes fail the most. Mainstream hardware support has prettty much gone the same way, and technical support will follow, so how long will the means to even play a cassette on a good-sounding system be available without specialist support costing $$$‘s? Are cassettes even worth that kind of investment to the average enthusiast? I certainly can’t afford to purchase and maintain another system for playing music to accommodate what I now see as little more than a fad.
Out of a total exceeding 32.5 million sales for physical releases in Australia for 2009, cassettes accounted for a mere 1125, less than half that of the previous year, and has been attributed largely to long-haul drivers in out-back rest-stops with older stereo systems in their vehicles. A statistic which speaks volumes about the general desirability and practicality of a mainstream cassette release.
Here are some things I understand: Artists have a right to present and deliver their work in any way they feel serves it best, I would never dispute that. But there is only so much an artist can do to influence what the listener experiences. Format is ultimately just a medium for delivery, and once received the listener has their own experience that no artist can alter. But the listener can, no matter which format the music is on, and the listener often will.
With that in mind, I’d like to pose a couple of questions to anyone out there who is either an artist or a label owner with releases either predominantly or exclusively on cassette by choice.
- Why do you write and/or release music?
- Why do you choose to release on cassette only?
It should be noted that the two are separate issues, and I hope for them to be answered without consideration for answers that serve one another. If they turn out to be conducive to one another, then so be it. Personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that if one was to really answer those two questions separately and honestly, they stand a greater chance of being contradictory, purely because, in my experience, artists that have a driving need to create and share their work don’t have a similar need to restrict who can subsequently access it. I’ll gladly be proven wrong, though.
My agenda here is not to ask for cassette releases to stop altogether - that would just be silly and serve me no purpose. There are people who quite obviously and for their own reasons want to continue to be able to listen to them. I’m asking for a choice to be offered. I’m asking for greater opportunity for the music to be heard. I don’t want to go get a release I’m interested in from a blog linking to a cassette rip on a file sharing site – this doesn’t benefit any of the right people, including me. What I want is a legitimate means to access and support the music I love. In the vast majority of circumstances, if I find a release I’m interested in is cassette only, I’ll move on to another where my options aren’t so limited – there’s no shortage of them. My loss? Certainly, but not solely.
Further reading – check out the articles below for some good insight on the respective sound quality (or capability thereof) of various formats, as well as a couple of arguments more for the positive.
Also, do yourself a favour, google cassette art and check out some amazing things being done with old tapes.