By Faith Vara
In recent years, the cassette tape found itself in a stage of revival as listeners rediscover the delights of the only music format that can be rewound using an old pen. Cassette culture is thriving in the DIY music scene where labels are pushing tapes to fans via online music platforms such as Bandcamp. And although the recent revival of tapes hasn’t made nearly as much of an impact as the vinyl revival, there’s no questioning the importance of its existence; not only for fans, but for artists too. While it’s still a small fraction of overall music consumption, the revival of cassettes shows no sign of slowing down, even as the music streaming industry explodes. But why?
As easy as it may be to dismiss cassettes as another display of ‘hipsterism,’ the revival has real, practical benefits for smaller artists trying to establish themselves. For one, the production of cassettes is much more efficient than vinyl. For about two dollars a piece, tapes can be produced in small quantities much more quickly than vinyl records, whose own resurgence has resulted in such a demand that a new record can take up to six months to turn around. And unlike vinyl, artists can produce new copies of cassettes in their apartment in no time at all.
For newer, less established artists, tapes also provide a lower-risk investment compared to vinyl. Since its revival, vinyl has gotten much more expensive to manufacture, especially if it’s only a seven-inch record. Instead, artists use cassettes as an exciting way to put music out, similar to the way that seven-inch singles were exciting for punk in the ‘70s. Additionally, if your debut EP doesn’t sell, you’re not stuck sitting on a heavy box of vinyl that took over a thousand dollars and half a year to produce.
As much as tapes benefit artists, it wouldn’t be possible without the support of fans. Tapes allow musicians to put out an affordable way to sell their work to fans, usually for about five bucks a piece, and help cover their costs on the road; especially in an age when streaming royalty checks will barely fill up the gas tank.
Tapes allow fans to support their favorite artists without the $25 commitment of vinyl or some other piece of merch. It may seem odd given the scarcity of cassette players in our lives, but if nothing else, a rectangular hunk of plastic can serve as a convenient vehicle for a free digital download of the album (plus, it’s a souvenir!).
For me personally, I find it nice sometimes to only be able to listen to what’s in front of you rather than having the entirety of music at your fingertips with your phone. However, it’s important to note that the appeal of tapes has more to do with collectibility and nostalgia than it does with convenience or sound quality.
Trendy as they may be, nobody is predicting that tapes are going to become the dominant force in the music industry (especially with their lo-fi sound that not all may be into). Not even vinyl, which has been growing in popularity for several years, can reverse the inevitable trend toward the subscription-based music economy. But as a viable method for artists to put out music in a physical format, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the demand for cassettes grow even more.
Regardless, in an age when most music exists on the boundless space called the internet, there’s something to be said for the tangibility and simplicity of physical media. Like reading a book or a magazine, listening to vinyl or cassettes pulls us out of the digital age and forces us to focus on one thing. And in addition to helping support an artist, buying a cassette tape can benefit you in the long run. At any time and without any advance notice, an artist’s music can vanish from a streaming platform. A tape, as long as it’s stored properly and treated with care, can last forever.
Featured image by Faith Vara.