March 26, 2012

Commenting on "the Cassette Revival"

Yesterday I came across an interesting post on Weed Temple, a Polish music blog that primarily reviews material released on cassette and is a constant favorite for us. The post was a defense of singling out specific tracks to listen to off of cassette albums rather than "listening through", which some vinyl and tape advocates have touted as an experience that elevates the two formats. In the post, Weed Temple concedes that...
"I agree that cassettes are outdated and are probably ultimately just a temporary fashion, a passing trend before people go back to CD’s and mp3’s." (Source)
I would tend to argue that "outdated" and "temporary fashion" are the wrong or at least some of the more misleading expressions that could be used here. They negate the cultural significance of the format, which didn't raise eyebrows when it first appeared and really needn't now only because it isn't championed by larger commercial concerns. To dismiss tapes as an even more bigotedly nostalgic addendum to vinyl is to ignore a chasm that separates them. Tapes were invented after vinyl and the reality is that when vinyl became unfashionable, it was supplanted by both CDs and cassettes in sales. Technologically and generationally speaking tapes are related to vinyl, but are actually cousins, with one's development and clarification not directly connecting up to the other - then or now.

From a label and band perspective, cassettes could not be more unrelated to vinyl. That is to say from a cultural perspective, cassettes presently have more or less currency for a variety of somewhat predictable reasons. Cassettes are cheap to manufacture. Unbelievably so, compared to vinyl. This has allowed their niche to remain constantly filled: by them. There's no CD analog that supplanted tapes, the way they supplanted vinyl. That is significant. Because of costs, one underground culture endured mostly silently to this day - in pockets on the west coast and in some traditional enclaves east and throughout the mid-west - while the other, though it had been bigger, actually started life in my generation's consciousness as a benign caste of techno-punks. People that lived for the music and touted vinyl for the distinct quality of experience that it offered, linking the music it contained aesthetically to a "live" rather than a "studio" experience.

While tacitly disagreeing with most of its contents, Weed Temple also points to a much older, lengthier article from Calum Marsh at Pop Matters. Marsh writes...
"The signs of deliberate regression are everywhere: vinyl LPs continue to (re-)grow in popularity; micro-communities built around fan zines and basement shows continue to burgeon; lo-fi home recording remains a spirited exercise in anti-consumerist, anti-corporate production and distribution; and, most recently, the inexplicable comeback of cassette tapes has confirmed its status as veritable hipster zeitgeist."
So tapes are just another bit of frippery, dismissing the social experience that underlies more than just hipster culture, at its most self-absorbed and most authentic. The origins of the word hipster link it to music, particularly the burgeoning jazz "scene" of the 1940s; since then importance of the "scene" has tended to be the defining interest of hipster culture.
". . . the informing logic is ostensibly similar: vinyl and cassette are both neatly sidestepping the physical album’s decline in popularity by regressing to a decidedly obsolete format, thereby investing their product with a kind of antique novelty . . . vinyl serves a function: it provides something many audiophiles insist [that] digital releases cannot. Cassette tapes have no such value. Behind the hip veneer of ‘authentic’ tangibility or the warmth of physical presence, arguments for the value of the cassette unspool and decay like so much magnetic tape. The cassette is permanently relegated to the realm of the fervently anti-digital; it affects vinyl’s distaste for the new and intangible, but does so seemingly for the sake of mulishness alone.
The use of the word "regression" throughout Marsh's piece is telling, but my biggest criticism is his total unwillingness to attempt a critical analyses of the culture he's talking about. Marsh's piece has really just identified one reason not to give-up enjoying your mp3s, as nearly all of us - tape and vinyl nerds alike - do, and amplified it into an argument against enjoying cassettes. Not one prominent tape label, or vinyl label for that matter, was mentioned in the entire article - admittedly the article was produced in 2009, but even then a lot of the evidence was in hand. I take it up now because tape culture is traditionally considered mute outside of the circles that have collected and continued making them. Though the last several years has been a sort of "coming out" for tapes, most treatments of the format are either incidental, anecdotal, or wholly topical.

The reality is, tapes do a lot of "sidestepping". A lot more than vinyl, frankly. Marsh wrote to imply that both had cheated death, but what tapes have actually sidestepped is the commercial concerns of the mainstream media culture that continues to fail miserably at projecting positive paradigms for its occupants - when has the mainstream music industry ever been touted for its inclusiveness? Tapes are cheap to produce and bear no taint of a cultural economy that people of all ages continue to feel disenfranchised by. People struggle after the root of why cassettes are so important, but the common discourse has forgotten that tapes have only just become particularly trendy to anyone. The new generic intersection of significance to tapes is electronic and pop music, so the affinity that all tape advocates should feel for the DIY punk scene occasionally gets lost. The question is too much "why are these normal God-fearing bands releasing on tape?" because the answer is they're not normal, none of us are, and which one of us really needed to be told again how different we are? Tapes are a new currency for a new culture, as much as they are an old technology for an impatient race.

1 comment:

  1. To give a little more perspective on our current cultural base:

    Wikstrom makes the case for a continual blurring of the line between pure artist and pure consumer.

    In this viewpoint, with more and more people taking part in some sort of music production, the cassette makes total sense as a cheap currency for DIY artists to trade in. The fact that they're relatively "in vogue" might also have to do with the sheer scale of people producing, trading and selling now.

    And yeah, cassettes now, for better or worse, actually operate as a sort of currency! There's been talk for a while of the shift of significance with the album to a more promotional than commercial role. Tapes are a sort of business card now, a cheap introduction that also acts as a way for labels and bands to network and show off what they're capable of.

    I actually traded some tapes with Becky at UUU Tapes in exchange for her coffee table. It just opens doors!