Undead Format: Dissecting The Cassette Revival
Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
My first musical memory involved a cassette tape of Michael Jackson's Thriller. I was in the backseat of my parents' car during a night drive, and I remember hearing the music and feeling lonely, as if there was a party elsewhere and I was not invited. I suspect that part of this feeling sprang from the medium itself, that I reacted to both the music and the sound imparted by a degraded tape played too often. A grassroots cassette revival is occurring, and I can understand why. Sonically, physically, and conceptually, tapes have a built-in aesthetic.
Audiophiles hate cassettes for good reason. Each one is a timebomb, sounding slightly worse with each listen as the mechanics slip and the interior tape sheds. Compact discs and their digital, non-physical counterparts solved these problems by improving consistency while maintaining cassettes' portability. But with every advance in musical technology, some folks end up missing the previous model's quirks.
Like vinyl, one can view cassettes as the antithesis of digital media. There is truth in this; small-run tape releases do come off like middle fingers to the unlimited, easily digested, easily disposable mp3 format. The appeal of a download is convenience, while the cassette is viscerally appealing. Even though the process of putting sound on a tape is mysterious (I know it involves magnets, then I'm out), elements of the cassette are understood physically.
We can see the tape spinning inside of the cassette, see it pile up on one reel as it thins out on the other, and infer a direct relationship between a section of tape and the sounds it holds. Records are spatially similar while playing, but the slate is cleared when the needle is lifted. A cassette stays put, and unless the listener is a chronic rewinder, each listen picks up where the previous left off (or begins a new experience on the tape's opposite side). Since the majority of tapes available today are used, each one is evidence of the point where somebody else stopped listening. It is completely feasible to put in a tape and hear something the previous owner never listened to, beginning at the exact moment this person stopped listening.
There is a sonic characteristic to cassettes; compression and equalization are inherent. For some styles of music, this is perfect. I recently purchased Classic Yes on a high quality cassette bragging "digalog" technology, I can't imagine "Heart Of The Sunrise" sounding any better. Most tapes are not this boutique, but they are usually either inoffensive or interestingly damaged. Warped, warbling tapes offer a chance to listen to a piece of music in a way that was never intended. I once had a dubbed tape of At The Drive-In's Relationship Of Command that spontaneously played backwards after the second song. It was like visiting Narnia.