What’s In A Format?

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

~Florence King


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?

Well….’Cos!

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.
~Christopher Lasch

Clockwise from far left: purse, watch, tote bag, gold belt buckle, Chanel bag, necklace. My research also turned up cassette-shaped business cards, notepads, USB flash drives, MP3 players, lamps and cabinets.

 

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.

  1. Why do you write and/or release music?
  2. 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.

S4E

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.

Digital vs Analog
This Is Not A Mixtape
The Hallucinatory Life of Tape

Also, do yourself a favour, google cassette art and check out some amazing things being done with old tapes.

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About Satellite for Entropy

My thoughts are fish, all swimming about and prone to scattering swiftly. Some of them are pretty but not all of them are gold. Some have teeth; some travel in gangs and with a single school of thought; some are haphazard loners, darting about the place randomly and to no obvious purpose. But they're all slippery little suckers. Sometimes, I get lucky and find myself with a good grasp on one, long enough to remember what it looks like before releasing it back into the wild. View all posts by Satellite for Entropy

12 responses to “What’s In A Format?

  • Gannon

    Good stuff – running with the seeds of this debate we’ve picked up elsewhere. Only thing I’d add is that cassette release is an easy way for bands to get their material to their fans. Fledgling bands pick up fans at gigs and can sell a cheap cassette at those gigs. All that is required is a 4-track, tape-to-tape deck, a photocopier/printer and some patience. Better quality tapes will involve a manufacturer to personalise the standard C90 into a smaller run / pirnt the band name on the cassette. Better ones still will come with a download code as with some vinyl (but that’s a story for another time).

    All this is generally true of the CD-R however so there has to be something above ease. And you nailed it with “cool” – no one was doing it 3 / 4 years ago and now it’s everywhere I look with distrubution channels dedicated to it. In fairness, cassettes as gigs were probably always happening somewhere and probably still will while they remain just about viable – coolness has seen their appeal rise no doubt.

    An FYI to online cassette distributors though – $5USD for a cassette good! $15USD+ P&P for same cassette bad!

    • Satellite for Entropy

      Hmmm >_> I replied to this half an hour ago but the comment seems to have disappeared into the ether…

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      It’s a fair point about cassettes at gigs – at least, I can see the appeal there; though I’d still ask why the option wasn’t extended to include a CD-R. I wonder if it has something to do with the ol’ cassette retaining a sense of being representative of the ‘struggling musician’, wheras CDs, even though now quite cheap and easy to pruduce on home equipment, still somehow retain a sense of technology beyond that of your average muso. Or, conversely, CDs and the technology to produce them are now so prevalent as to be disposable, whereas cassettes, with their longer history and relative ‘scarcity’ make people feel as though they’re getting something a little bit more special? (something of a separate issue which also bugs me XD). A bit like say a blues musician having a romantic fascination with an old, beat-up guitar and playing on that, even though they can afford a snazzy new one (discounting relevent sound qualities in both circumstances!) That would still make it a choice of image over anything else, though.

      To their credit – and I’ll have to apologise to whoever it is because I’ve since forgotten their name – I did turn up one label that offers a CD-R burning service for their cassette releases, but only on request once the cassette itself has sold out. Better than nothing, though.

      And wow at the $15 price tag!

  • RB

    Great article.
    I have noticed tapes been given out/sold at gigs too but I don’t see this as an easy way to get the music to fans. If I record some music I can burn a CDR in about 30 seconds and still print/customise my own artwork. There are free templates available for making CD cases too. Couldn’t be easier.
    With a cassette (unless there’s another way I’m not aware of) the minimum time to make one copy is the duration of the recording. I think blank tapes are probably more expensive than CDRs too.

    I remember buying records in the ’90s and wanting to get, say, the first PWEI album. My options were pretty much go in to town and try HMV and Records and Relics. If they didn’t have it I could order a copy which although inconvenient was also very exciting. How cool am I? I want a record they don’t even sell in the shops.!

    More recently I got quite into Cambodian psych from the 60/70s. This is the sort of stuff I would never have been able to even order from a record shop. It wouldn’t exist. Now though I can just go on Amazon and get it (or pretty much anything I want) and if it’s not even on there I’m sure it’s on a torrent site somewhere.

    My point is; it’s so easy to get any weird and wonderful music at the click of a button and as a result some stuff can lose a bit of its charm and underground status. Every band has a site. You can get any bands music for free easily. The natural result then is for some bands to rebel in some way and I suppose stand out from the crowd and have their own ‘cult’.
    e.g Witch House. Loads of bands with undecipherable, un-Googlable names.
    Or put out just a cassette and say “you’ve worked to get this release, you can’t download it, treasure it, you’re in our limited edition hipster gang”.

    So yeah, maybe it’s a rebellion against ‘the man’. Maybe the cassette artists have come to save us from descent into a Ballardian future dystopia. Maybe Ariel Pink is the second coming. Which I suppose would just prove that the devil really does have all the best tunes.

    After trying all that though I don’t necessarily believe it’s true for more than a few artists. I think the majority are now doing it because it’s the cool fad of the moment and I think it will pass soon or be replaced by something even more obscure. I hear some artists have ‘moved on’ to floppy discs.

    • Satellite for Entropy

      Thanks for reading and your insight – some thought-provoking points.

      Particularly in regards to easy access to whatever you want, and the desire to be able to provide fans with something a little out of the ordinary, to treasure in that sense and/or to set yourself apart from the majority. Again, it’s reasoning I can appreciate. I think it’s something that bothers me more on the level of why it’s required, which takes the issue back to consumer attitudes rather than the artists and labels. I touched on it very briefly up there in my previous reply, but it really saddens me sometimes to come across ideas and attitudes that suggest there needs to be something other than the music in order to make a consumer feel like they’ve gotten something special, something “worth” extending the gesture of actually spending the money instead of just downloading it (legally or illegally, I suppose – MP3s hold far less value to most people than something on a physical format). So, I can see what value that might have for an artist looking to appeal to the covetous nature of the consumer/collector – there is a point in bucking the trend, but when bucking the trend becomes trendy, the point becomes rather moot. (Perhaps that’s why the floppy disc has started to emerge – a little birdie did tell me about that recently, the mind boggles!)

      I guess it’s about what people like to indulge in, other than the music. As, in all reality, if it was just the music that mattered, everyone would be happy to have their music provided on one format and be done with the debate. (Interestingly, with one or two exceptions, I don’t see the same thing happening for any other types of media – i.e. no one is out there saying hell no I won’t watch a movie on Blu-Ray, it’s VHS or nothin’ – them lines of static remind of the old days when Mel Gibson was only pretending to be crazy in Lethal Weapon movies, and the blurry colours make Leonardo DiCaprio look less like a frog and more like Prince Charming…).

      It just frustrates me that as a music fan, I’m given less opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and support these artists in one of the few ways I’m able; particularly if they happen to be overseas. I can’t pay to go and see them live, and there’s no other merchandise (like t-shirts etc) available to subsidise the choice to download a cassette rip if I ever decided to – unless I’m prepared to embrace a subculture. I want the music, without having to participate in a scene – I rebel against the rebellion, I suppose! I don’t have any less reverence for music if lots of other people can have it too. I do often see attitudes to the contrary, but I would hope I’m not in the minority.

  • RB

    Yeah, I can understand to an extent why they would reject releasing MP3s. As you say, to some they can hold less value. I know that personally I’ll spend a lot more time (and effort sometimes) on a CD I’ve bought rather than a MP3 but I don’t have a cassette player any more. If it’s cassette or nothing then it’s probably going to be a nothing from me. It is being deliberately difficult whatever the reason behind it. Why not release a CD too? Make it special with over elaborate packaging. Hand-paint each copy. Make the case from the skin of some endangered species (OK maybe not this one). Seal the envelope with the pure, salty tears of a virgin as she cries over the death of her long lost brother. At least I’ll be able to play it.

    VHS though? Pffft. I’m strictly Betamax when it comes to film.

    • Satellite for Entropy

      Why not release a CD too?

      See, that’s the question I really want answered. If cassettes are about getting music quickly and cheaply to gig-goers (the strike while the iron’s hot method, I suppose), as has been said there are quicker, easier ways for going about it; if it’s an attempt to have the music valued a little more highly, there are other ways to inspire people to prize a possession other than simply being harder to get/play.

      If it’s about being cool like everyone else… meh, that doesn’t earn any street cred from me!

      Betamax, eh? Enjoy your 1hr recording length – I’m gunno go watch TWO movies on the ONE 3hr VHS tape. Ha! :p

      • Gannon

        Great replies RB. A lot of truth in what you say. Just one thing on your first post, if you’re already set up with a tape-to-tape deck you can opt to dub at a much higher speed than real time, but naturally you can’t listen to that dub at the same time, so knocking out cassettes needn’t take as long as copying vinyl used to. Oh and the cassette or nothing debate has caught me foul a few times. I’ve had stiff conversations with myself let me tell you, and the rational side must have won out as I have very few (3) recent cassettes in the collection.

  • RB

    Ah, high speed dubbing. Forgot about that. It was great to turn the volume up and make everyone sound like the chipmunks.
    Rather than slowing down say Justin Bieber and turning him into Sigur Ros….

    http://soundcloud.com/shamantis/j-biebz-u-smile-800-slower

    Slow is the new fast

  • dirtblonde

    Cool article.

    My band, Dirtblonde (from Liverpool, UK) have just released a single in cassette tape format (http://dirtblonde.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/limited-edition-cassette-tape-out-now/).

    I think cassettes are pretty cool, and in fact in the past I’ve had more problems with CDs (tracks skipping, etc) than I ever had problems with tapes! So this old technology is not that bad after all!

    Also, if you’re skint you can go to a charity shop and buy something like 5 albums on cassette tape for 50p, which is pretty good!

    As for choosing to release something on cassette instead of CD-R, I agree that CD-Rs are so prevalent as to be seem as disposable…cassette tapes really do feel like something more special, and it’s a simpler and cheaper way for the DIY musician to put music out than vinyl (if you wanna do something other than mp3s…)

    But just like you said, we understand not everyone will be into tapes, so we’d never release the single just on cassette. We decided to make the two main songs available online, but left one bonus track as exclusive to the cassette tape release, so if people are interested enough to get the tape they’ll have something a little bit more special and unique.

    I personally just LOVE music and will get it however I can: I download stuff, buy Cds, buy vinyl and buy tapes…besides listening to albums on Spotify!

    • Satellite for Entropy

      Cheers for reading and commenting – and kudos for not restricting your release to the one format!

      My curiosity is a little piqued by one of your comments… if people are interested enough to get the tape

      I definitely appreciate the concept behind “here’s something if you want to take a listen (MP3), and here’s something if you really like us (cassette with bonus track)”
      I just wonder… what if someone was interested in your music enough to want (and pay for) what’s on the cassette, but wouldn’t be able to play it, as will sometimes – perhaps often – be the case?

      I do respect everyone’s right to release music whichever way they wish, and in case it isn’t clear I don’t actually have an issue with cassettes, per se, it’s more when it’s all that’s available – which isn’t quite the case with your release, granted. I have the same issues with vinyl, so it’s not a matter of having something personal against tapes (I will sometimes buy vinyl, but I still grumble if it’s the only option. I’ll grumble if MP3s are the only option, too. I make the issue here out of cassettes because from all the available options, it appeals to and reaches the least amount of people).

      I love my music too, which is why I want to support the artists making the music I love directly. Just speaking for myself, I don’t need a special format to make me want or cherish that music, I just need to be able to hear it – which means being able to play it.

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