Cassettes are making a comeback.
Is it just a gimmick?
The audio cassette is an amazing format. It's cheap to produce, easily transported, relatively durable, and portable decks could run a long time on a pair of AA batteries. Sure, it sounds like crap, but when the cassette was king you couldn't very well walk or drive around with a turntable or CD player. As CD players became more affordable and more portable--and less likely to scratch your disc--the cassette fell out of favor.
I got into music as CDs were overtaking cassettes. I only bought a couple cassettes, but recorded many of my CDs onto the format for listening on my Walkman or in my car. So I do have some nostalgia for the format. Strong memories persist: blaring my Walkman while mowing the lawn, sitting in the back seat of the car with my family, winding the tape back in with my pinky, or listening to the same tape over and over in my first vehicle. If side A ended in the middle of a song, it was disconcerting to hear the song without a break in the middle later on. Older metalheads have even more nostalgia for the format, held over from their discovery of the music or from tape-trading.
The format has been making a comeback. (If you're into underground, lo-fi black metal, you may not be aware it was even gone.) But why?
Cassettes vs. Digital MediaAll of the advantages of the cassette are trumped by digital formats, and that's without any of the disadvantages. (In this context, I'm using "digital" to describe music on computer files, although CDs are technically digital as well.) Digital music is free (or nearly free) to distribute. My iPod Nano is smaller than a cassette, and holds a quantity of music equal to hundreds or thousands of cassettes. If you back up your files, they're essentially indestructible. And my player will run for a hell of a long time without having to recharge, which, by the way, is practically free to do. All this, and with sound quality that's essentially as good as you want.
|Most of you aren't buying cassettes anymore.|
So, what role could cassettes possibly play in 2012? They are inferior to digital media in every respect. It must be a gimmick. I've insulted Enforcer for having a cassette-only release, and even though I like Promiscuity, it's hard to justify their cassette release in the era of the MP3. It's either blatant pandering to feelings of nostalgia, or an effort to seem extra-kvlt by using an outdated and little-used format.
Or is it?
The Human TouchPhysical media does have one thing going for it that digital files can never replicate: a tactile, human aspect. Even though it seems obvious, this had to be pointed out to me. Many cassettes can only be obtained by writing directly to the band or label, by snail-mail. Whether that order is made by snail-mail or electronic communication, they will put the tape in a package, by hand, often with a signature or a handwritten note. You wait with anticipation for it to arrive. When it comes to your mailbox, you get to open the package with excitement, read the note, and see the album art. There's a true human connection between parties with a mutual interest, made easier than CD or vinyl formats because it's cheaper to produce and to mail.
|The MP3 is king--and CDs are still more popular than other formats.|
On top of that, a physical collection is a great conversation-starter--especially if you have such an out-of-the-ordinary format. How many times do you remember going through someone's music collection and finding something to talk about? Have you ever done that with someone's iTunes library?
So, maybe it is just a gimmick. If so, does that matter? As metal fans, we're hardly in any position to reject something simply because it's a gimmick. Metal is rife with gimmicks, from corpse paint, to the silly outfits worn by folk metal bands, to bands with artificial back-stories, to basically every band name in the Metal Archives.
Maybe it's not a gimmick. Either way, the allure has reached me. I'll be looking around to see if I can find my old Walkman, and failing that, I'll be checking Goodwill.
How do you feel about it? I've heard about Ash Borer, but can you recommend any other good cassette-only releases?