Basement Tapes

Is the demand for cassettes more than just 80s nostalgia?

As far as decades go, the 70s was a fairly outstanding one. Pong was invented, the Twin Towers were built, disco and punk had prevailed, and beards came back into fashion for the first time since the 19th Century.

Up until this point, listening to music had been restricted to areas that could accommodate either a tape deck, radio, record player, or if you were rich, all three in one. The idea of making music portable had merely been something of fantasy. That was until in 1978 Sony’s chairman approached a little known audio engineer called Nabutoshi Kihara with the idea of inventing something new. The Walkman was born.

Although this fresh product wasn’t properly marketed to the western world until the very early 80s, it didn’t take long to ignite a revolution within the industry. The demand for cassettes increased ten-fold, and music was now something that could be enjoyed anywhere, at anytime.

It was this influx of demand for the tape that quickly turned the format into the cheapest, easiest way to record and distribute music. Unsigned punk bands could effortlessly record a demo and sell it to their eager audience, whilst major labels could shift thousands of copies of Kylie Minogue’s hit single ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ to leg warmer wearing teenage girls.

Although the compact disc had been available around the same era as the Walkman, it was the products portable aspect that helped tape flourish. It wasn’t until midway through the 80s that the technology became available to move on from cassette when the first portable CD player was introduced. Despite being considerably more expensive than most Walkman’s, it was inevitable that over time, portable CD players would become cheaper to make, and eventually take over. This signaled the beginning of the end for the cassette.

Fast-forward to 2012 and you’d think that with the advances in music distribution, and ease of portability, that tapes would be long gone. Surely with music being available at the click of a button, and the ability to store thousands of songs on one tiny compact device, there’s no place in society for cassettes. But you’d be wrong. Shawn Reed recently told Pitch Fork that, “Today’s [cassette] culture is both a reaction to, and a product of digital media, the Internet, and downloading.” Owner of the Iowa based cassette label Night People believes that in certain respects these advances have rendered tapes “almost pointless in some way,” whilst on the other hand it has “allowed them to flourish,” claiming that the web has helped niche products reach a wider audience.

It would appear that after nearly 35 years since the tape reigned supreme, it still has a fan base. Much like vinyl, the cassette is still favorable amongst the most avid music collectors. “I like collecting physical releases, no matter what format they’re in,” says music enthusiast Jay Mohar, “It’s the feeling of having something tangible, and real that attracts me to it.” This seems to be something that is felt universally throughout the music community. He goes onto say that “owning a tape is the best feeling in the world. There’s no bollocks to it. It is music in its purest form, with zero interference from the over abused digital culture.”

In recent years the music industry has undergone a massive transformation. Legal downloads have started to overtake CD sales, whilst illegal ones continue to cripple record labels as they attempt to make money.

However, if you take sometime to look a little deeper, beyond the surface of the mainstream, you’ll eventually find an image of the past. Music lovers have managed to keep vinyl alive for years, and lately the format has started to appear in the commercial spotlight again. With the introduction of free digital downloads of an album with every record purchased, it has helped push sales forward. It’s an idea that is brilliantly simple, yet capable of creating massive change. Which provokes the thought, could similar concepts eventually propel the revival of tape?

It seems that one of the most desirable aspects about this aged, plastic format is its low cost. Obviously downloads have the cheapest distribution value due to them being free to post online. But when it comes to a physical release, tape certainly has its benefits. “You can produce about three tapes for the cost of one record,” announced Todd Wolenski. The co-owner of the tape only record label Baldy Longhair Records, grew up listening to cassettes and distinctly remembers having them “lying around the house” as a child. During his teenage punk years Wolenski decided that it he wanted to startup his own record label later on in life, “I felt such a strong connection to the music and I wanted to be surrounded by it, and support the scene in any way I could.”

His decision to go down the cassette route was something that he had no real worries about, “Don’t get me wrong, I love vinyl, but you can’t make it at home, and iTunes playlists are great, but it’s just not the same as crafting your own tape. It’s nice to be able to do something analog that sounds great, but is still affordable.”

Major record labels are not exactly jumping at the chance to start releasing tapes again, and HMV is likely to laugh at an individual who asks for a cassette in one of their stores, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for it. Individuals such as Todd Wolenski and Shawn Reed are here to help keep up with a supply for the demand.

In very much the same way that book lovers prefer to buy a paperback over the increasingly popular Kindle, diehard music lovers will always favor the real thing instead of a file. And while at this moment in time vinyl is still the dominant force in the analogue culture, tape is certainly trying to make a comeback.

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