A modern rewind

In an increasingly digital world, many music collectors are trending toward cassettes as a renewed medium.

Macaulay Culkin, in a state of post-fame psychosis, has started a band.

In December 2013, from the depths of who-knows-where, emerged the Pizza Underground, a pizza-themed Velvet Underground parody band, in which Culkin plays both percussion and the kazoo.

The band’s demo, which included reappropriations of Velvet Underground songs “Beginning to See the Light,” renamed “Beginning to Eat the Slice,” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” pizza-ized into “I’m Waiting for Delivery Man,” among others, first appeared for download on Bandcamp. However, in early 2014, North Carolina’s Bitter Melody Records decided to give the project a physical release.

That’s not even the strange part – the demo was released via cassette.

Remember the flimsy, temperamental bit of plastic that some may recall popping into the tapedeck of their mom’s old minivan, waiting patiently for their favorite 3 Doors Down song to play on the radio and timing it just right so they could record just the song instead of the gibber-gabber of the radio host? Those old things? They still exist. And to some degree, they’re making a comeback.

In 2012, the sale of cassette singles in the U.K. rose 300 percent – a notable caveat is the fact that 604 were sold in 2012 compared to 218 in 2011, but still. The following year saw several record stores across the country participate in the inaugural Cassette Store Day. In January 2013, California-based Burger Records engaged in a program called “A Tape A Day, OK!?,” in which it pressed a new tape every day, including reissues for groups such as the Adolescents and Nirvana.

And while this is all indicitave that tapes are becoming en vogue, it wasn’t long ago when they were thought of as inconvenient relics.

“There was a time back in the late ‘90s where you wouldn’t release a cassette, you’d be so behind the times,” said 29-year-old Temple sophomore business major Chris Cotteta, a tape and record collector whose first cassette purchase was 1992’s “Totally Crossed Out” by one-hit-wonder rap duo Kriss Kross.

According to the Nielson SoundScan, in 2013 the music industry saw its first decrease in digital sales since the iTunes store opened its virtual doors in 2003. Additionally struggling, although they’ve been on the decline for years, have been physical album sales. But it’s not entirely clear that the demand for physical music is going anywhere. It may just be shifting.

“I think a lot of people want something tangible,” said Colin McMahon, co-owner of South Philadelphia’s Sit & Spin records. “It’s great that you can go and hear new bands streaming on the Internet, but a lot of people still want to see the artwork and whatever other forms of expression that come with it.”

Zack Reinhardt is an avid collectors of all forms of music, but are especially interested in tapes. | Skyler Burkhart TTN
Zack Reinhardt is an avid collectors of all forms of music, but is especially interested in tapes. | Skyler Burkhart TTN

Zachery Kern, founder of Eyetooth Collective, a small tape label based out of Ohio that also dabbles in mix tapes, shared a similar sentiment.

“I think people will always have a thing for physical mediums instead of MP3s because you can’t hold an MP3,” Kern said. “You can’t spin an MP3. They sound like crap half the time, and you don’t get the satisfaction that you get from pressing the giant play button on your tapedeck or dropping the needle on your turntable.”

Records, with their vast design potential and superior fidelity, have been steadily on the up for roughly a decade. According to Billboard, in 2013, vinyl saw a 36 percent increase in sales. This is a trend that can be easily dissected. A large amount of the appeal comes from the quality of sound they omit. With the right equipment, a spun 12-inch will objectively sound better than an MP3, but tapes, on the other hand, lack this appeal. However, for tape lovers, the lack of fidelity doesn’t seem to be an issue.

“They sound different,” Cotteta said. “For a while, I’ll admit, I was like, ‘Yeah, they just sound better.’ But they don’t. They sound like cassettes, which is fine.”

An incubator of the tape revival has long been the DIY punk scene. Leaning on the affordability of the medium, as well as the fact that they can be recreated at home with a thrift store tape duplicator, bands generally use cassettes as their medium of choice for demos. The Hundred Acre Woods, a Philadelphia-based punk band with folk influences, is one of many bands in the underground scene to utilize the medium, as it released its 2011 EP on both cassette and CD.

“It has to do with the cheapness of it,” said film major Zack Reinhardt,  one of the band’s guitarists. “I shouldn’t say cheapness because that makes it sound like it’s s—-y, but they’re really affordable and easy to make, and the thing is, we got 300 pressed, and I hand-stamped every single one of them. It comes down to something that’s malleable and something that’s a little bit different. [Fans] come up to the merch table at a show, and they’ll be like, ‘Is that a tape!?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, dude.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Sweet. I’m going to buy three of them.’ We can get them pressed for dirt cheap, then sell them for $3.”

The element of cheapness is also what allowed Kern’s small tape label to form.

“We started the label side of Eyetooth Collective because we were bored in my room one day and we were all, ‘Let’s start a tape label,’” Kern said. “So we got on eBay a few days later and bought 500 blank cassette tapes. It’s funny because Brian, the other guy I do this with, broke into this abandoned house to get 50 cases and 30 blank tapes with some church recordings. So we were pretty broke in the beginning.”

However, CDs are nearly as cheap as tapes. At Office Max, customers can buy 100 blank CDs for a crisp $20 bill. But for whatever reason, in 2014, CDs, at least among a number of collectors, are seen as passé, outdated relics, doomed to sit idly in a box marked “two for $5” at F.Y.E’s across the country.

“With a CD at the core of it, it’s really just a piece of plastic with data on it,” Reinhardt said. “There’s nothing really physical about it. If you break open a cassette – you smash it to bits, you can still see the lines on it. Just like you can look at a record and you can still see the grooves. One of the things that still blows my mind more than any scientific breakthrough [is that] you can have today is that you can put a needle on a record and turn your stereo off, and if it’s spinning, you can still hear it. And that just blows my mind more than microchips do.”

For many a music nerd like Reinhardt, the sound of an MP3 played through a set of earbuds doesn’t cut it. And the element that’s missing is a tangible physicality. This is an element that tapes, a medium that for the most part doesn’t allow its user to even select a track, has in spades.

“They change with you,” Reinhardt said. “My Beach Boys tape, when I was little, I probably dropped it or sneezed on the tape, so in this one spot it dips out or gets muffled. And every time I listen to it now, it dips or gets muffled in that one spot. And I’m like, ‘That’s from when I dropped it or almost broke it.’ And even in [bad weather], I put a tape in my car, and if it’s 15 degrees, it can’t spin as fast. So I’ll put a tape in the tapedeck in my car and it’ll be like, ‘Buurreeeuree,’ and I’ll have to smack it or wait until it warms up. You feel more of a connection to it rather than just hitting a button on your MP3 player.”

For teens in the early ‘90s, the mixtape – if movies and television are to be trusted – was a perennial part of adolescence. With the right combination of tracks, they just might’ve been able to make their crush swoon. The following generation was not deprived of this entirely, as mix CDs have had a fair amount of popularity, but McMahon claimed there’s a substantial difference between them and their cassette-based counterparts.

“The cool thing about making someone a mixtape is that you can make a mix CD, and you can put the same songs on it, but when you make a mixtape, you have the feeling that the person sat there and pushed a button to make each one of these,” McMahon said. “And that they actually put thought into what they were putting on there next. And they sat there and listened to it and were like, ‘Oh, I think this person would like this.’”

There’s a real possibility that the recent resurgence of the cassette has something to do with the time and place we’re in. Millennials, who are now coming of age to become modern-day collectors, grew up in an era where cassettes were still a viable format to own music on. Many have hazy, childhood memories of cassette tapes.

“Cassettes were the first music medium that I had when I was really young,” Reinhardt said. “I even have some of them still here. I have my Beach Boys tape and my Raffi that I would always listen to when I was going to bed.”

But to touch up on the element of place, music exists in 2014 in a landscape that is nearly entirely lawless. Almost any noteworthy piece of music ever constructed is buried in some distant corner of the Internet, whether it be a Mediafire link or a Russian Blogspot site, just waiting to be unearthed. With that considered, many modern music fans are having a hard time seeing the point in paying for a piece of music that’s free online.

“I don’t necessarily like paying for music that’s digital because I know I can find it for free somewhere,” Reinhardt said. “And if I am spending money, I’d rather wait for the band to come to town, go and speak to the person who’s on the tape or who’s on the CD, and give them money and have them actually hand me something back in return. I’d rather wait and do that than have the MP3 faster.”

For all of their nostalgic value, on a macro level, tapes are still mostly a niche thing. In 2013, according to The Nielson SoundScan, they accounted for just .02 percent of the year’s total music sales. Music lovers would be hard pressed to find a record store that values tapes to nearly the same extent as they do vinyl. And many music collectors, including Reinhardt, McMahon and Cotteta have record collections that dwarf the number of tapes they’ve amassed.

But the fact that they exist at all in 2014 has to be indicative of something.

“It’s really protesting digital culture,” Cotteta said. “When you release an album on cassette you’re saying, ‘You can only listen to this if you have a tape player.’ And people who just listen to their iPod, they don’t have a tape player, so they literally can’t listen to it. So it’s like a club thing. But in a way it’s a very human thing to do because it’s futile, but you feel like it’ll be successful anyway.”

David Zisser can be reached at zisserd@temple.edu.

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