When I told my parents I was writing about cassette tapes they actually laughed at me. My dad is always very calm so his jokes tend to land hard: “I can go out to the garage and dig up your old Raffi tapes – you could write about that.” I admit it’s probably perplexing for hip baby boomer parents, who feel like it was just yesterday they bought you your first CD burner (remember those?). Growing up, I was either cherishing their beaten up vinyl collection or too busy spending their money on inkjet cartridges for custom CD-R labels to covet any real cassette tape collection. For me, tapes were just the lo-fi, unsexy middle period that I was born into. The cheap way to do storytime. And now that I think about it, Baby Beluga is probably among the last cassette tapes my parents ever bought. As teenagers we used our car tape decks, but only to plug in our Discmans or mp3 players. So what gives? Why are we talking about tapes again? And how is it possible that last month, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry released their report of 2 million cassette tapes sold worldwide? Sales in the UK alone tripled last year.
Everyone who, like me, all but abandoned cassette tapes more than a decade ago, harbors several conceptions about tapes which, really, are misconceptions: Tapes are “lo-fi”; Tapes are clunky and ugly; Tapes are hinky and outdated; and bands who use tapes are pretentious and/or still in their “demo” stages. Well, guess what – all this conventional knowledge is wrong, and now that I’ve figured that out, I’m hoping to dispel these notions for you, too.
Let me take you first to the heart of Oakland, California, to a little urban cabin dwelling in a back lot off of 29th Street. This is where D Vikram Babu lives, in quiet comfort, with his stash. On the wall above his desk are more than 100 cassette tapes that he’s amassed just this year. Vikram calls himself Tape Famous, and has become an avid tape collector, as well as manager of a corresponding reviews blog. The rest of his collection is in storage in Ann Arbor, Mich., but he fancies the idea of starting from scratch. His room is tidy and impeccably organized, and there the tapes sit, in clean presentation, in a large pine wood storage display from the Napa Valley Box Company.
“When I look at that wall of tapes,” he says, “I can really make quick identifications. It’s even faster than vinyl because you have to flip through vinyl. But when I look at that, I know exactly what I’m feeling. I like that method of selection because it involves that sense of sight too. I don’t think scrolling through your computer is rich enough.” And it seems obvious now, watching him stand there before all the tape spines – in ranks, all facing at attention, thick, colorful, and boldly typefaced – this is the best way to survey a collection. Vikram, who is a web developer by day, has a large collection of mp3s which he listens to at work, but at home, his tapes are how he retreats from the digital world: “I actually find it less taxing. I’m not very good with names, so I find it easier just to look, and then stick a tape in.”
There’s this myth of tapes being lo-fi; it’s not only pretty much untrue, but tapes are laterally versatile in their own way. Professionally dubbed, or ProDub tapes (not the ones you’d buy in the store), come in different frequency ranges, the highest of which go up to 20,000 hz – if you require better than that you’re probably stressed out enough by your super-human ears anyway. Short of optimum frequency range, Vikram mentions how different kinds of tape can be used to different effects: “The highest frequency response ones they recommend for like, synthesizer music, whereas jazz you might get a different kind of tape. You don’t have that with CDs or vinyl, it’s just one kind of material. The tape itself changes how it sounds.” In addition to having the unique quality of being both a recording and a listening/consumer format, tape also requires a certain amount of forethought and creative planning. “There’s an end product in a way, whereas digital can seem so vast and editable. I know friends with Bandcamp sites who have altered tracks after they released them, and that’s ok, but you definitely have to make a commitment in order to finish a tape.”
“I’d loved the format ever since I was a kid, so there was some nostalgia involved.” Lars Gotrich is a producer, writer, and web editor at NPR Music in Washington, D.C., explaining his previous foray into releasing tapes. He’s a 6 foot-plus, mild-mannered guy with a long blonde mane and an encyclopedic knowledge of metal, noise, what he calls “outer sound,” and pop music. He’s also obsessed with tapes, and put out quite a few on his now dormant personal label, Thor’s Rubber Hammer. “I could say something about audio quality, I guess, and the object, but for me, it’s the artwork. I ended up falling in love with the cassette layout. That tall frame is weirdly inspiring, having to work within its ratio, and you get to extend the design in the foldout like a centerfold.” I told you tapes were sexy.
So what about the snobbery? Tapes are flimsy and can’t be expected to hold up for long, right? So aren’t these people just dabbling in an obsolete format, shunning the digital realm just to be different? Vikram shrugs and points out that tape dubbing is not expensive, and even professionals are used to dubbing for small scale operations, which makes it the ideal format for a limited release. Plus, most people he knows also want to distribute their music online – “People think tapes are anti-technology, but it’s more complicated than that.” This is where terms like “underground” and “DIY” start to come out, and sitting at the altar of Vikram’s tape collection, those terms don’t seem so overrated anymore. For Vikram the dream is one of hyper-locality. He started collecting around the time that the phrase “Brooklynization” was coined to describe homogenized musical product. With tapes coming out on labels that pop up in the most random small towns of the world, he feels like he’s fighting against that.
Maybe protecting a cultural niche like this is important, and whether that’s called “being a snob” or “keeping it holy” can be for you to decide. You can tell that Gotrich, who’s been hoarding cassettes for years now, is wary of the new hike in popular music on tape: “Yeah, it’s been curious to watch the indie-leaning bands and artists embrace the cassette. It makes sense because it can be quite the twee object. But one time I read that Burger Records pressed 2500 cassette copies of a popular garage-rock band’s album and it sold out in no time. To me, that feels counter-intuitive to cassette culture. But you can’t get territorial about these things. It’s just another way to experience music is all.” When asked directly about snobbery in cassette collecting, he didn’t seem eager to galvanize any movements, “I don’t know, it’s no more snobby than someone that collects old arcade games, except that it’s a helluva lot cheaper and more mobile.”
As for durability, this might just be a PR problem – there are no longer any big ad agencies or marketing campaigns telling you “tape is the way of the future,” and Sony isn’t making tape players anymore, so how could it be durable? Vikram says even in the tech world tapes are still respected: “Even like 5 years ago there was a lot of discussion about whether DVD would be a proven format, and they were still backing up data on tapes because it lasts a really long time, and it does well in different conditions. It might seem a bit backwards because we don’t have as many tape players anymore but it’s a really robust format. I think it holds up better than CDs in a way because CDs scratch really easily and I’ve never had a CD that lasted in my car more than a few years, but I’ve seen tapes in a car that have been there for a decade.”
Gotrich recommends coming to terms with a few harsher realities: “In the long run, the physical thing that is the cassette is not durable. I still have some punk cassettes from high school and the actual tape is wearing out, warbling and thinning the sound. The hard plastic, though sturdy, can’t save those magnetic strips. In a way, it’s poetic — that literal fading away, perhaps as some metaphor for musical tastes and memories past. In another way, it’s impractical. But $4-$10 is a small price to pay for a tangible piece of music that will someday lose its memory.”
I’ve spent hours at Goodwill and Salvation Army, scouring racks of toasters, receivers, and grilled cheese makers from the nineties, hoping to find a workable player, though everyone I’ve bought has broken on me. And that may be the biggest obstacle for tape fanatics today. In Vikram’s arsenal, he’s got a few old players, a nice dual deck, but nothing really fancy. He hands me an old Sony Walkman that’s heavy and compact. “I think that one might be worth a couple hundred bucks on ebay,” he guesses, “but I haven’t spent more than like 20 dollars on all these players.” There’s an ethos to cassette tapes that’s a little more Zen and a little less about obsessive collecting. Above all it seems to be about enjoying the music and remaining low-key. And if you find yourself wanting a dependable tape player, his advice: “Buy Japanese.”
Wanna’ get caught-up on the cassette craze? Browse Bandcamp releases by cassette here.