I Love Cassettes
April 12, 2023 Jamey Alea 0 Comments
Let’s talk about cassette tapes. A friend of mine recently made a prediction about cassettes becoming the next hipster thing, like vinyl has become. That’s an interesting thought! I’m afraid that it won’t be true actually—vinyl and cassettes are hard to compare, because the appealing thing about vinyl to hipsters is the sound quality, and cassettes just don’t have that. (While I love the lo-fi aesthetic of how cassettes sound, I wouldn’t call it quality exactly.) But cassettes don’t have to be vinyl. They’re different than vinyl, and in some ways they’re so much more.
Cassettes are so fucking cool. I love them, I can’t get enough of cassettes. So please let me tell you what I love so much about them (and why they’re only getting cooler).
I’ll start with the absolute basics. Cassettes are a cool artifact. I’m a very tactile person, I find a lot of value in tactile experiences and how things feel to hold and use. I like holding cassette tapes. I think they’re a nice size, they’re a nice shape. I like the way the jewel cases open and close. Music is mostly digital now, and there are a lot of benefits to that, but there’s no tactile experience anymore. And the more things go digital, the more I value that tangibleness. Call me old fashioned, but I really like being able to touch things and know that they’re real.
I also like uncommon things. Of course cassettes aren’t rare, but they are becoming more uncommon as time passes by—less people are putting out new music on cassette, and as vintage tapes get older, there’s fewer of them over time. This means cassettes themselves are becoming increasingly like a kind of treasure hunt. When I go to a show now and the band is selling cassettes, that’s exciting for me!
And vintage tapes are absolutely a treasure hunt. Not only do you not know what you’ll find, but you never even know what you’ll get when you find it. Last fall, I found a full set of Lord of the Rings audiobook cassettes at a used bookstore for $12. Then a couple months ago, I picked up an old Tragically Hip cassette at a flea market and only later discovered that the liner notes had autographs of the whole band, including the late, great Gord Downie. Score! But then on the other hand, last week I bought the Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me soundtrack cassette on eBay, but the cursed object I actually received was the Wedding Singer soundtrack cassette stored inside the Fire Walk With Me case. Sometimes you get Gord Downie’s autograph, sometimes you get the Wedding Singer soundtrack. That’s just how it is on this bitch of an Earth.
But the reasons I’ve cited so far are about esoteric aesthetics, and that doesn’t set cassettes apart from vinyl because vinyl also excels in esoteric aesthetics. If you want to know what I really love about cassettes, I’m afraid we have to get political.
Cassettes are the everyman’s audio format. They are accessible in ways that other formats are not, which gives them freedoms that other formats don’t have. Anyone can make a tape. It requires almost no skill, knowledge or specialty equipment. You can put literally anything you want on it. If you can hear—or make—a sound, you can put it on a tape. This causes two other things to be true, and they’re both based as fuck.
Based Thing #1: DRM straight up does not apply to cassettes. As long as you own a boombox and a blank tape, there is no one in this world who can stop you from recording your favorite song from the radio or your friend’s music collection or wherever else you might hear it. The more dystopian the world gets, the less free anything is. Cassettes are a relic from a pre-digital age, before data piracy was a thing that corporations were so worried about. New formats solve modern problems… but what if some of those problems were made up by capitalism? What if we didn’t want to solve those problems? New formats can solve modern problems, but old formats can avoid modern regulations. When you look at it that way, the most technologically cutting edge format stops being the obvious choice, and choosing a format becomes more like making a decision about the right tool for what you’re actually trying to accomplish.
Based Thing #2: Cassettes are essentially like audio zines, due to the similarly low barrier to entry, and so they’re also based in all the exact same ways that zines are based. They give people the opportunity to just try whatever. Want to make some weird, experimental noise music with stuff you found in your kitchen? Try it! Want to make a little demo tape for your new band, even though you haven’t figured out your sound yet? Do it up! Want to do an audio diary on top of the sounds of a babbling brook? Why not?!
This is cool even if you don’t feel inspired to dabble in audio art yourself. (And let me be clear, I’m not an audio artist either! This love letter to cassettes is from someone who’s just a fan, not because it’s my medium.) We still get to benefit from how easy cassettes make it to just try stuff, because—just like with zines—you’ll see interesting art in the cassette format that you might not see in other formats. Let people try stuff, and they’ll try stuff, and you might really like some of that stuff! And it might have never existed without cassettes! That’s pretty cool!!
I mean it when I say there is no other medium quite like cassettes. There are things that get lost in the shuffle to modernize technology. We should be preserving these “outdated” formats so we can continue to enjoy the things that make them unique and interesting.