Music for the Masses: Cassette Culture, July 2012

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.

Small doses

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.

Librarians’ dilemma

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.]

About Matthew Moyer


  1. teetop says:

    All three media have their drawbacks from a collections perspective. CD’s are the easiest to maintain. LP’s and Cassettes are too easily damaged and too hard to fix for most libraries, IMO.

    • WWW says:

      Scratch proof CD was a failed technology. On the other hand, tape formulations have improved over the last decade.

  2. staaltape says:

    The British Library recently bought the complete collection of the staaltape label. All cassettes are available for listening for visitors of the Library. The curator (or librarian) added the cassettes to the sound art collection. So, maybe it is worthwhile to look at content as well.

    Yours, Rinus van Alebeek

  3. Scott Scholz says:

    I’m a talking book librarian in Nebraska, and I also write music reviews. An interesting note on cassettes where libraries are concerned is that talking book libraries, circulating materials made under contract for the National Library Service (NLS) on specialized format cassettes, are largely responsible for keeping the demand side of the supply/demand equation high enough to sustain the manufacture of cassettes and cassette duplication equipment. But that’s changing very quickly with the transition to the new Digital Talking Book format. You can read more of my prognostications regarding a fast-approaching end for new cassette/equipment manufacture in the last five paragraphs of this cassette review:

    I’d highly recommend a book that not nearly enough libraries have called “Cassette Mythos,” edited by Robin James and published by Autonomedia way back in 1992. It’s impossible to think of the cassette format as “hopelessly square” in any way other than literal shape after reading this book’s many accounts of 80s underground musicians taking control of their own destiny back by controlling their own sales and duplication-on-demand with tapes. The first round of cassette culture is a model for relatively unmediated exchange between artists and audiences, without the loss of intellectual property control folks gave to record labels for CD/LP contracts back then (or without the loss of intellectual property control folks expect from the internet today in a more general sense).

  4. Mo Rahman says:

    They are by no means “back,” they’re just hanging in there.

    When they start making cassette recorders that can record in High Bias tapes, let me know.