A Brief Introduction to Cassette Culture

How do you like to listen to your music? iPod and mp3’s? CD? Mobile streaming sites like Pandora or Last FM? Or how about something more analog? Like vinyls or even…. cassette tapes?

Cassette tapes gained popularity in the 1980s when they allowed music to become portable. No longer did people have to use phonographs for their musical entertainment purposes. They were wildly popular with the launch of the Sony Walkman, one of the most successful consumer products of all time. I can remember tape players being sold until the early 2000’s once the revolutionary Napster, iPods, and iTunes came around and digitized today’s music industry. As we move forward into the 21st century, cassette tapes have become a cult product. Their product life cycle has ended many years ago, where the mainstream populace wanted cleaner sounding productions and more convenient way to play music. They also wanted a way to play songs that didn’t skip or warble while they were busy working out, running, or what have you. A lot of music industry professionals totally laugh at the idea of cassette tapes being pressed today, and most of them will say it’s a joke novelty which would never be a lucrative business opportunity. However, people are taking to the power of the internet to get their fix of this otherwise extinct product of the past.

Today’s counterculture says the opposite. As I have gotten deeper and deeper into the independent world of the music business, I have discovered the fans of “indie” subcultures are avid fans of nostalgia and forgotten products of yesteryear, often involving things that were popular before their lifetimes. Myself being a fan of the neo-retro movement, have whole heartedly embraced this idea of the cassette tape fad which is more apparent in 2011. With cassette tapes, there is a sense of non-disposability that you can’t get with an mp3 or a burned CD. It’s an analog format that does not understand the zeroes and ones embraced into today’s compact discs and digital audio files. With websites like eBay, people are buying tape recorders, tape duplicators, 4 track tape recorders, cassette tape to mp3 converters, and even boom boxes with the cassette record feature on the website for extremely cheap prices. A lot of people drive older cars which have a tape deck in them too. Websites like Pitchfork.com report hundreds of emerging cassette tape labels in the United States alone. More and more established indie bands are starting to release albums out on cassette tape. Some bands even go as far to make cassette tape exclusive releases that cannot be obtained in any other way.

In a recent article on NPR it discusses how the culture movement has started to blossom in urban environments like Los Angeles and New York City. Even here in the Orlando area, our local independent music store, “Park Ave CD’s” sells cassette tapes of local musicians. The cassette tape form is truly an art form, bringing a “Do It Yourself” approach to releasing music. It becomes a genuine arts and crafts project where it is very common to have individually packaged tapes personalized to each one of it’s customers and listeners. I have seen tapes being sold at Park Ave CD’s with sticker book stickers on them, and even hand made inserts that come with the tapes. I have even heard of people performing live DJ sets off cassette decks and mixers. I have yet to hear a mix uploaded online, but I will be sure to post a link to it here when i find one.

The sound of today’s cassette tapes are very broad, expansive, and textured. Often times, you may never know what is on a tape, it could be somebody’s home recordings, a spoken word diary, foley sounds, experimentalist noise patterns, obscure international world music, freak folk, or anything else that is avant garde in nature. It doesn’t even have to be experimental or weird, it could be anything. The cassette tape is becoming a bigger and more popular medium for those who enjoy underground music. It really is a medium for all the freaks and weirdos out there who like those ratty sounds covered in gunk and fuzzed out with blissful distortion. The warbles and fluctuations in a tape add a natural sense of appeal and authenticity to it’s listeners. I’ll even present this list I made up explaining the ideology behind today’s cassette tape culture.

  • The sound of cassette tapes degrade over time, meaning that each listen is always slightly different than the previous one.
  • Tapes take a long time to make, because you have to actually let the songs play and record onto tape.
  • You can’t skip songs on a tape unless you fast forward over them.
  • People love nostalgia. It is a great selling tool, and it often appeals to those people who want to remember the days of old.
  • A majority of tapes are of older genre’s and time periods in music, which enables a young person to listen to music which was popular before their lifetime, which I think is super cool.
  • Often times, mixtapes are compiled together to bring our favorite songs onto one 90 minute cassette tape.
  • The analog sounds of tape and vinyl are very warm, the ugly gunk and hiss can enhance the appeal of certain types of music, particularly older albums or music recorded at home or on tape.
  • The music typically released on cassette today is usually from underground independent artists that are usually very exclusive releases of otherwise rare material.
  • There is a cult following with cassette tape listeners, they often like to exchange tapes with one another which revives a very personal form of musical exchange.
  • With any kind of cult product, people who indulge into them are usually people who have invested interest in similar forms of entertainment. Cassette tape people will eagerly seek out those tapes from those small independent artists.
  • At thrift stores, tapes are in abundance right now, I scored a JWin portable tape player for $1, and I got tapes for $1 a piece. That’s a whole album of music for one dollar! One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
  • I have to stress the authenticity behind cassette culture. People take pride in the fact that there was no digital manipulation on a cassette tape. A lot of indie musicians now are using antiquated analog equipment to make their noise.
  • People find it intriguing to see someone going back to the “good old days,” especially in today’s fast paced cluttered advertising killing field.

To conclude, this is only just a start to what cassette culture is moving up to be. Obviously this is written from a consumer level stand point, although I have done some research in this particular subject. I am also seeking cassette tape distribution on some of my musical releases where I see it would be a fun venture to get into. This is merely a fun thing to do, giving a fan more options to listen to and enjoy your music. The cassette tape counter culture is one that embraces artistic diversity and is one that warmly accepts new ideas and new melodies, which is great for any musician, especially one that is less experienced, or is just starting out. Luckily for this generation, the cult status our cassette tapes have attained may actually help our future generations understand things like past tradition and history in today’s entertainment world.

Some fun links to check out.

The list goes on. Hopefully these links are a good place to start.

-Chris Big Money

About butteryobread

BUTTER YO BREAD! A PLACE TO GET YOUR BREAD BUTTERED! BRING THE LOTION! Writing about music, art, and anything else which makes you wanna butter some bread!
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9 Responses to A Brief Introduction to Cassette Culture

  1. I still use my analog 4 track recorder, so I am always in need of blank cassette tapes. However, I do prefer vinyl over cassette tapes. This is due to damage control. One fatal flaw with the cassette was if you lost that little pad that reads the tape (flip tape up look at bottom middle compartment, pull tape back a little and you’ll see the pad I’m talking about)… if that falls off (and many do)- the whole tape is screwed.

    I had to perform a few major operations on my cassettes in my time, but it was rather nerve wrecking and time consuming.

    It is the easiest of all the technologies to use though- and like you said, it makes the power of distribution for the artist much easier to maintain.

  2. and yes Chris, all of my Sex Ink recordings were done via analog 4 track recordings… it was quite a process indeed, and NOTHING can be faked with technology so archaic (lmao). Transferring it to MP3’s and finding a good mixing system is the hardest. So I keep it simple. 4 track and goldwave… I use the CD technology for distribution though.

    So you record digital?

    • yeah! i do everything digital. I’m using ableton live to record my music, although a lot of is programmed with plugins and virtual instruments. I have been really getting into lo-fi music lately, where I really kind of like all the imperfections that DIY home recordings offer.

      I think there’s a genuine authenticity to using a medium like tape to record. no cheating there lol. trust me, i am pretty dirty, i don’t play by the rules lol. tape kind of challenges you to think out of the box, well especially now a days. i have been doing more recording with ableton, and using digital effects to recreate vintage sounds/tape delays/compression, etc. so much fun!

      • that does sound like fun… I had Sonar Producer 8 for like a week, I was just learning how to use it when my system crashed, man I was so pissed! I’ll probably never have that program again, so I’m back to square one. I’ve been wanting to try digital for a while (as far as recording straight to the computer, but I’ve seen problems people have with a delay.

        I got a computer project going now where I am going to use an older model computer for nothing but music mixing. Hopefully it will work out. I am going to have to peek at your software next time I see ya so I can see what it’s like…

      • The delay sucks! I know exactly what you are talking about! I often have to go back into the track and edit the song back into time on occasion. It’s only a click of a button really, however some purists may totally shun that idea. It’s just a latency/buffering issue really. Not so much the software itself. I know in Ableton Live, I can adjust it, and I’m sure any other DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) could do the same thing. I know I started using FL Studio, then I moved up to Ableton. I am also interested in using Propellerhead’s Reason program too. I also like using hardware and analog instruments now a days too. I even use a Casio PT-1!

  3. Alexandra Whyte says:

    Actually I clearly remember listening to cassettes in 1967 so they have been around much longer than the 1980s.

    • John Xero says:

      “In 1962 Philips invented the compact audio cassette medium for audio storage, introducing it in Europe in August 1963 (at the Berlin Radio Show),[2][7][8][9][10] and in the United States (under the Norelco brand) in November 1964, with the trademark name Compact Cassette.”

  4. Pingback: 2012 Project 366: Stueve Music Day #145 « aestueve

  5. JD says:

    Not tryin’ to sound like a spammer, but these guys have some sick cassette tape cases for phones. Trying to bring it back, oldschool style. http://www.rocketcases.com/case/cassette-tape-2

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