The exodus of music from physical to digital formats isn’t quite as all- encompassing as we’ve been led to believe. First, the CD is still hanging on by its fingertips in classic Buster Keaton style. Then there was the (pleasantly) surprising vinyl revival and with it a possible alternate future where vinyl will be the predominant physical format for music‚ perhaps even music that patrons demand that cannot be licensed from content-providing vendors.
In the midst of all that activity, another not-so-obsolete format has been building steam for the last few years to come crawling from the oblivion that earbud-wearers consigned it to‚ cassettes are back!
Yep. The cassette format, formerly the compact disc’s hopelessly square older brother, is increasingly the physical medium of choice for innovative, fringe- dwelling artists and tastemakers across a wide swath of genres.
There are scores of so-called tape labels, small cassette-exclusive operations specializing in myriad subgenres: noise music, garage rock, hip-hop, avant-garde music, and the gnarliest of metal.
Some of the more notable and prolific labels currently specializing in cassette releases include Hospital Productions, Not Not Fun (NNF) Records, NNA Tapes, and 100 Akres. Mike Sniper of the tape-friendly Captured Tracks label gets right to the point when speaking about the cassette resurgence: When you devalue the physical aspect of music so much, you shouldn’t be surprised when the most inexpensive [format] comes back into style.
In contrast to CDs (or even vinyl these days), cassette releases are produced in small runs (as small as 20 and usually no more than a few hundred) and often quickly sell out. And if you’re a bigger hip act in independent music circles, it’s good form to do limited-run cassettes as collectibles; these go like hotcakes.
On the consumer side, cassette releases appeal on different levels. There is the collectability factor, but they’re also quite cost effective.
This correspondent recently bought a handful of tapes from the Living Tapes label for the price of a single CD, which tends to encourage one to be a little more adventurous in purchasing music‚ it’s just a few bucks, why not take the chance? (Don’t ask about the order I received from Friends and Relatives, which included a bag of human hair‚ gratis!) On the artist and label side, as Woodsist’s Jeremy Earl opined recently, It’s cheap and easy.
The manufacturing of the physical product can be done on the quick at a bedroom level of production. A whole run can be dubbed speedily with minimal overhead. One drawback to the cassette underground phenomenon is that it is so new and decentralized it’s hard to keep track of what’s coming out when. Labels also appear and disappear with (un)surprising rapidity.
This trend leaves us with many questions, most important, what does it mean for library professionals and collection development? Should libraries chase every contrarian media creator down every rabbit hole? Absolutely not. But it is important to realize that as the music industry and vendors are pushing into the digital frontier, actual content creation is fracturing in a million different directions, and not all embrace the promise of a completely digital future.
Can librarians simply ignore this music (and, by extension, the larger trends in media creation) because it doesn’t fit into our prescribed notions of modern music delivery? Maybe. I would suggest that professional librarians take this opportunity to rethink their presuppositions about physical and digital formats. Vinyl never died, even as many libraries were chucking out perfectly good collections in favor of CDs. Increasingly, the same can be said for cassettes.
These cassettes are a direct consequence of music creators/producers drawing a line in the sand against the creeping digitization of everything and the compartmentalization of music as little more than eminently disposable background noise.
As Amanda Brown of NNF said to The Wire last year, I would say we’re part of the resistance to things that almost don’t exist. It feels like the music doesn’t exist. To some people, this doesn’t lessen the quality of it. But it actually does to me.
Will CDs be the next big revival? Who knows?
[The author wishes to note that this column was written with the invaluable assistance of Andrew Coulon.]