Cassettes are making a comeback. No, REALLY this time

Cassettes are making a comeback. No, REALLY this time

The MP3 has undeniably changed the face of music. In just a short period of time, it’s made Metallica look foolish, made Bradford Cox of Deerhunter throw a hissy fit and made maverick bloggers take up arms and leak White Stripes records everywhere, which was, well, messy to say the least. But the emergence of digital music has also made small record labels look for alternative recording formats. Record labels and artists who, quite rightly, don’t wish to pummel their compositions into handy 128-bit iTunes-style formats have taken a move against the bloggers, webzines and, well, everyone obsessed with bit rates, and have turned to DIY recording formats.

So, what is the underground music scene offering now? Well, to put it bluntly, cassette tapes. Yes, that seemingly decrepit format has weaselled its way into musical consciousness once more, rearing its apparently ugly head and turning what were crystal clear compositions into fizzy, static puddles of musical mess. However, the tape is now much more than a second-rate recording device, as a new strain of ethereal and dreamy musicians (no, not My Bloody Valentine) have been working the format for all its worth, toying with its recording constraints.

For some, cassettes were, and still are, simply a vehicle for chart top 40 mixtapes, 80’s albums that hadn’t been digitalised and the only musical device that would work in your parents’ car. It is understandable then, that when you read that a new drone-come-noise record is only available on a tape, some feelings of cynicism towards the format emerge. Fortunately, it’s misplaced, as record labels such as Not Not Fun and Gizeh have taken on all the qualms of the tape and turned these problems on their proverbial head, effectively making the recording format compliment the music.
American Label Not Not Fun (NNF) remain optimistic about cassettes as a recording format, noting that “certain strains of music lend themselves to the warmer, blurrier sound of cassette tape”, which essentially describes what the label is all about. The decision to record onto tape is apparently “70% aesthetic” and “30% economic” as – unlike an expensive vinyl press – tapes are perfect for “rawer, less accessible recordings.” With an ever-increasing back catalogue, which includes the likes of Robedoor, Pocahaunted and even Thurston Moore, NNF’s harmonising of both the economic and aesthetic makes tapes more than just a ‘kitsch’ fad, but a genuine recording alternative.

It also marks a turn against torrenting. Cassette recordings are less likely to appear online, unless you move in certain circles, as the bit rate is lower than the expected norm of elitist torrent sites. This, along with the low record prices labels such as NNF offer, allows listeners to seek out their own gems, search through a labels back catalogue, grabbing goodies that may have been missed by those who crudely demand releases in free lossless audio code (FLAC, for short).

On our own side of the pond, British labels such as Gizeh are also doing their bit for the tape effort. 2008 releases have included ‘The Heritage’ by now-on-hiatus Her Name is Calla and ‘With our arms Wide Open we March Towards the Burning Sea’ from Glissando, who, as luck would have it, aren’t on hiatus. Both of these records were released on a limited run of beautifully packaged cassette tapes and for those who missed out on the action the first time around, Gizeh kindly released the albums on CD too. Like NNF, Her Name is Calla remain wholly positive about tapes, suggesting that ‘The Heritage’ was an “organic record” and that the noisy quirks of the “pokey basement” they were recording in – the electricity and water meters – added to the recording and finalised their decision to release it on tape.

It would of course be ridiculous to suggest that tapes will completely take back the place of MP3’s, but next time you spot an artist releasing something a little extra special on tape make sure you grab a copy. It will probably be the most enchanting 90 minutes of your life, with a 30 second break for when you have to change sides of course.

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