Cassettes Are a Weird Way to Distribute Music?

credit: Steve the Alien / flickr
credit: Steve the Alien / flicr
My, oh my, where has the time gone. Sure, cassettes might be nearly obsolete and decidedly retro. But weird?

Wired’s Epicenter blog recently compiled “10 Weird Ways to Distribute Music.” But, really, the list might be more accurately characterized as “10 Unique Ways,” rather than weird. Seems that some popular indie bands like Dirty Projectors are now releasing some albums on cassette again, making the format #8 on Wired’s list. At least blogger Eliot Van Buskirk had the good taste of linking to my somewhat tongue-in-cheek 2007 post titled, “Next Big Retro Thing: The Cassette Revival.”

Of course, distributing new music on cassettes stands out only because the format’s been largely abandoned by the mainstream. I emphasize new music because I’ve certainly seen cheap cassette compilations of country classics and oldies still turn up at truck stops and dollar stores. Cassette-only labels were an underground music fixture in the 80s and 90s due to both the low cost of doing limited edition releases and the relative ubiquity of cassette players.

While mostly overtaken by CD-Rs and downloadable MP3s, cassette labels have survived. Plustapes is a Chicago-based label putting out new independent music on cassette each in limited editions of a hundred or so. Earlier this year the music blog Expressway to My Skull compiled a list of active cassette-only labels and places to find them.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of releasing music on cassette is that it’s possible to record and duplicate albums entirely in the analog domain easily and cheaply without a computer. If you want to get fancy you can find a cassette four-track at a thrift or pawn shop so you have more recording and editing flexibility. Then get a dubbing deck and you’re set. It doesn’t have to be about analog fetishism — it can simply be about being cheap.

Perhaps the enduring charm of the cassette has to do with its fundamental nature as a recording medium that is very accessible, but imposes real practical limits on its duplication. It’s easy for nearly anyone to duplicate several dozen cassettes using inexpensive dubbing decks, but quantities of much more than that require commercial duplicating services. Like ‘zines, cassettes can be a near-mass medium, where you can reach hundreds with a work that the creator still fashioned and touched with her own hands.

Now that we can take for granted the ability to reach a nearly unlimited audience with a perfectly-duplicable MP3 file, there’s something to be said for a sound medium that can’t be had by anyone with a ‘net connection, that didn’t roll off an assembly line. It doesn’t have to be a case of internet vs. cassette; I think there’s room for both to coexist, even in symbiosis.


4 responses to “Cassettes Are a Weird Way to Distribute Music?”

  1. Eric Avatar

    I notice that ways 1 and 4 are identical (and also not particularly weird); give a download code on another purchased item.

    Re: Cassettes — I think that tapes are going the way of vinyl, still around, but rare enough that only a small chunk of the market still has the equipment to play them. I think it was about 10 years ago that I really stopped listening to cassette tapes at all (oh, I still had them, and would pull them out every now and then, but once I was able to use a friend’s CD burner, I never went back). Now we only have a handful of tapes left and only two devices left to play them on – neither of which have been used in over a year.

    But vinyl still exists, there is no reason to expect tapes to disappear either, just that cassettes will end up being limited to a “near-mass medium”, and possibly to a certain genre (as I believe vinyl’s genres are now down to dance music for DJ’s and maybe some jazz – but you probably won’t see any more pop or country music pressed).

    nice article!


  2. Paul Kotheimer Avatar

    On our way into the second decade of the 21st century, cassettes certainly are quaint. Like TV dinner trays, or library card catalogs, or Atari, cassettes are icons of a bygone century. So, for that matter, are the walkmans and boom boxes that we used to use to play them back.

    As a 20-year pratctitioner of low-budget DiY music distrobution, a few questions cross my mind in response to this article. First, who has a working cassette player any more? Are the ultra-hip purveyors of the 21st century cassette release actually listening to the tapes, or are they just displaying them as knick-knacks?

    –In the interest of full disclosure, I DO have a working cassette deck. It’s an Onkyo TA-2130 in near-mind condition which I scored for $85 at the Pawn Shop in Rantoul, Illinois. (How retro-geeky is that?) It’s hooked up directly to a FireWire analog-to-digital converter and into my laptop. Point being, the only reason I’ve ever popped in a cassette in the past 5 years has been to DIGITIZE that sucker before it deteriorates completely.

    Don’t get me wrong. Any means of getting independent music to the ears of avid listeners is a good means: Busking on the street. YouTube video. Downloadable podcast. 12-inch vinyl. 8-track cartridge. Wax cylinder. It’s all good.

    Having put out a handful of cassette releases in the 80’s and 90’s, though, and having put in countless hours moving cassette-released music of that era to the digital domain, I just have to smirk at the idea of the 21st Century cassette release.

    Been there, done that.

    **Thanks for the article! And thanks for the opportunity to post a comment. Paul Kotheimer

  3. Mike Flugennock Avatar

    I’ve been an avid Deadhead since the late ’70s, and throughout the ’80s and ’90s was one of that fanatical subset of Deadheads, The Taper. I collected hundreds of hours through postal-mail trades with other tapers, and many more hours of shows I recorded myself with a Sony D-6 and a matched pair of mics, or via FM radio on New Year’s Eve.

    About three or four years ago, I decided to start digitizing my Dead collection, and discovered that a huge number of my analog sources — including a few audience masters I taped myself — were not nearly as good I remembered them, and at that point decided to turn to to replace/upgrade all the especially memorable or historic shows I had in my collection, and also to cull it down to just the shows I _really_liked_ and listened to often. It’s still a good-sized collection, but nowhere near the “Wall Of Dead” I used to have in my house.

    I, too, still have a tape deck kept in good working order, an Onkyo TARW544 and, like Paul, the only time I actually play anything on it is to digitize old footage, like all my Dead analog masters I taped at the shows and over the radio, as well as anything else memorable — mostly FM radio concert broadcasts from the early/mid’80s — that needs saving before it’s worn out completely.

    That said, I’ve noticed that all the discussion of the vinyl revival and the cassette revival seems to miss one important point that’s rarely mentioned, and seems to be the best-kept secret that everybody knows — and that is that you can’t encode DRM onto cassette or vinyl. That, to me, is the ace in the hole that owning vinyl gives you — that an LP, properly cared for and played on a decent-quality table, will sound just as good as the day you cracked the shrinkwrap, and can be easily digitized with the right equipment for enjoyment on an iPod or CD player.

    I have a boatload of LPs that are in near-pristine condition that I bought after I graduated from college (1979), many as replacements for albums I owned in school — the stuff I owned in high school and college is worn beyond saving — and every chance I get, I borrow a buddy’s turntable to digitize a couple of them, slowly working my way through the old collection. I get the advantages of mp3 and CD, but with the kind of distinctive sound quality you only get from an LP played on quality equipment.

    Cassettes are actually often worse in that regard, owing to all that damned hissing. You can mitigate that a bit with Dolby, but there’ll still always be a bit of that hiss in the background, even on a metal-oxide tape in a really good deck. Even my best-recorded Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve FM broadcast masters — on chrome and metal oxide, with perfect saturation and perfect FM reception, recorded on a three-head dual-drive deck with Dolby C — still have a barely discernible bit of surface hiss.

    Still, I have to hand it to digital for fidelity, clarity and portability — and because, thanks to CDs, I can finally listen to albums like Dark Side Of The Moon all the way through, uninterrupted.

  4. KK Avatar

    CDs are a poor “replacement” for music medium. Problem is that the 1982 technology does not sample music fast enough. Sounds of Guitar and Drums on tape definitely sound more original than CD. SACD hopefully should be more original. With the current sampling, CD really should be alternate format, and not the replacement format. Also CDs are not scatch proof. A replacement should have had all the flaws removed instead of bringing in new flaws. Costwise, a tape album costs 1/3 the price of a CD album. Download of 1000s of MP3 into tape is not studio representation as MP3 render voice well than instruments. Tape thus has its analog edge as of now.

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