If you haven't heard the hipster news buzz, cassette tapes are cool again. In 2016 cassette sales were up 74% in the US; but don’t be fooled by the huge percentage, that’s still only 0.06% of US physical music sales and 0.01% of US total music sales. So why the rise in sales? Maybe we can blame the hipsters, or nostalgia, or aesthetics, or even the indie music industry itself; but rather than figure out who to blame, let’s focus on the facts.
Cassettes as a medium are problematic at best. They degrade and also damage your player with use, they have limited capacity, you can only listen to an album in order, they’re cumbersome to carry around and store, recording on them is done in real time, the background static noise never ends, then your player just decides to eat them and spit tape in your face, and without regular maintenance your player just dies. Yeah, if we’re being realistic they suck. It’s very clear why they were replaced by CDs.
For all their problems, cassette tapes do offer some benefits, specifically for metal music community. Metal is inherently tied to aesthetics, be it concert theatrics, convoluted band logos, or the grainy cover photos. The imagery of a band lays a foundation for what to expect from their music. Most metal albums are designed to be listened to in full like classical compositions, not cherry-picked favorite tracks like pop music. There has been a tradition of distributing underground demos on cassette, even long after CDs and MP3s became king. The form factor simply feels more natural and fits in your hand better than a CD. Tape degradation produces some interesting sounds and artifacts. In past years you could nab a new album on tape for about half the cost of a CD release. Lastly, there are tons of bandcamp artists and several distros that only do physical releases on tape. Even big labels like Season of Mist have jumped into the cassette game.
Is the tape the new vinyl? Young hipsters were largely responsible for the return of 78’s; the music industry had written-off the vinyl but now it’s an embraced source of revenue. While indie artists have kept the tape alive through self released material, I can’t say I’m confident in a “tape resurrection” yet. Very often it feels like the media hype about the return of cassettes is much larger than the actual return. It will take several more years of sustained growth before we can draw any conclusions about the state of the cassette industry.
All the facts aside, it’s really up to you to decide what media type fits your own lifestyle. Vinyl and tape remain luxury items for most, while for some they are the only way to listen to obscure releases. For most people CD’s are still king. Others have transitioned exclusively to digital and have lost most of the aesthetics that come with a physical release. Personally I still buy tapes to feed my car’s old player. As long as you’re enjoying the music and supporting the artists then I suppose it doesn't really matter how you’re listening. But for those of you who are still interested and new to cassettes we’ll discuss the need-to-knows in part two of this series.