Rewind: the revival of the cassette

by Toby Manhire / 20 September, 2013
Vinyl? Nah. The kids are playing tapes.
The vinyl revival is, like, so last decade. The cutting-edge revival is another musical format thought near-obsolete: the cassette tape.

When the inventors of the Walkman, Sony, stopped production of handheld tape players it appeared “the final nails had been banged into the format’s coffin”, notes David Anthony at the AV Club.

But those little plastic rectangles are fighting death, thanks to a growth in collector numbers and independent bands offering limited-edition releases on merchandise tables – “mimicking, in a smaller way, the vinyl resurgence of the 2000s”.

For all their flaws, giving up cassettes felt bittersweet. Eventually, tapes began to re-infiltrate my record collection—and not just thrift-store finds purchased for nostalgia’s sake, but newly manufactured tapes released by currently touring punk, hardcore, and metal bands.

At house shows and in small clubs, cassettes have once again become just as common as T-shirts and vinyl. For fiscally minded fans, they cost half as much as those two items, and they help young bands tour, build a following, and make a little money on the road. That made it harder for me to dismiss cassettes when they came back, even though most people who buy them don’t even play them.

Many don’t own devices to play the things, but that's part of the appeal: "The cassette format is just a more attractive souvenir."

Writer and musician Patrick Kindlon has thought about the phenomenon. From the AV Club again:

“Cassettes are interesting because they are truly a widget to 90 percent of people,” Kindlon says. “You could say I’m hypercritical of vinyl because 90 percent of people buy it and they’ll never actually listen to it; they’ll use the download code. There’s nothing really wrong with that; it just seems like an incredible waste of resources, but that’s fine. People purchased it, and they can shove it up their ass if they want to ...

“My message to the youth: Put a piece of fucking dog shit out on the merch table, because who cares? If somebody wants it because it’s a piece of dog shit, and maybe you put a sticker on that dog shit so it’s got the band name on it, allow them to buy it. Who are you to tell anybody they’re an idiot for not liking a format?”

At Slate, Matthew Yglesias agrees that the cassette is “objectively horrible”  – and that largely explains their new status.

The ideal item for that should be very cheap, and the transaction should be very fast. The $5 cassette hits the sweet spot. You hand over the money and immediately have this hilarious gag—I bought a cassette tape!—to share with your friends and Instagram followers. It fits in your pockets. Maybe someday wireless broadband speeds will be fast enough to have this property. But for now you still can't beat analogue for sheer impulsiveness.

Cassettes remain very much a nice for the time being, says Anthony.

It’s impossible to predict whether cassettes will be imbued with the same cultural cachet as vinyl, but for the time being, they’ve survived longer than anyone expected. For some, cassettes may never escape gimmick status, but for now they’ve found an unexpected place between fun and functional.

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