Cassettes are selling again, but is this a revival or a hipster “flash in the pan”?
When the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack was released in 2014, it looked like a clash of media. On the inside was a CD, but the cover looked like a Walkman with a faded vintage cassette tape inside, “Awesome Mix No. 1” chicken-scratched on the label in ‘80s mixtape fashion.
For Hollywood Records, this might have been a way to appeal to audiences’ nostalgia. But the music industry is taking it a step further.
Just last week, Urban Outfitters announced its initiative to begin selling cassette tapes and cassette players for the first time, partnering with major bands like Muse, Foals, Halsey and Run the Jewels to release albums on cassette. In recent years, big-name bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Wilco have increasingly opted to publish their albums on cassette tapes, in addition to more standard formats like vinyl and CD.
A small cassette tape market is starting up on a national scale, and local cassette connoisseurs are building their vintage collections. Some are skeptical about the future of the trend, but others say cassettes are the new vinyl.
Greg Sutherland, manager of Eugene’s House of Records, is one of those believers. Sutherland started working at the shop in 1986, when records and cassettes were the dominant mediums.
Sutherland cited the portability and cost of tapes as compared to other physical forms of music. Most tapes at House of Records can be purchased for $6 or less, while CDs hover around $15 and LPs go as high as $20 or more.
“The portability of cassettes is just undeniable,” said Sutherland. “And they sound better because they’re not all compressed.”
The tedious process of making the perfect mixtape was a predecessor to the modern act of creating playlists through streaming services. This, along with the involved, ceremonious process of listening to tapes, makes them a valuable format for collectors.
“Tapes are really warm,” said Hunter Moore, a music collector and former University of Oregon student, who’s been collecting tapes for most of his life. “They don’t have the clarity of a vinyl record or a CD, but they produce a really deep sound.”
The “warm” sound quality that collectors often defend is due to the difference in formatting.
“There’s no compression on cassettes or vinyl, but on CDs, in order to get it to fit into the digital numbering system, you have to compress the sound,” Sutherland said.
Cassette collectors might advocate for medium’s uncompressed analog format, but any cassette produced today is just a digital file put on a tape.
“It’s very likely, given the tools that we use to record today, that the sound was already digitized to begin with,” said Chet Udell, an instructor of music technology at the UO. “So even though you’re listening to something on a cassette tape, or even an LP that’s been released recently, you’re still listening to the sound that was already digitized in a computer.”
With modern audio being mastered on a computer, the “digitization” is fully established during the recording and editing process.
“You could transfer to an analog medium but it doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of the sound,” Udell said. “It sort of just adds noise with the extra mechanics.”
As for that warm sound, Udell says a lot of the value might be psychological trickery.
“Listening to music through some kind of antiquated medium like a record player or a cassette deck does sort of provide a color and a nuance to the sound,” Udell said. “But I wouldn’t really call it higher quality. If anything, the quality is somewhat degraded having gone through this extra playback process.”
Technological specifications aside, is there really room for cassettes in a market dominated by vinyl records? For collectors, the answer is yes.
“Everybody’s kind of showered in nostalgia all the time,” Moore said. “I mean, you have the popularity of Lana del Rey and Leon Bridges and all of those artists. I think there’s room for format nostalgia as well.”
For musicians, cassette tapes are an affordable and accessible way to get their music out to the public in a cost-effective fashion with a quick turnover rate.
“The biggest perk – as far as the benefits over running a label that focuses on vinyl – is simply cost,” said Josh Finch, founder of Eugene-based label Flossless Audio.
But despite the romanticism of mixtape culture and the revival of the cassette tape format, some don’t consider tapes to have the longevity of other forms of music.
Todd Milbourn, a UO professor of business and journalism, as well as an owner of a small tape collection, is one of these critics.
“I think it might just be a sort of a flash-in-the-pan revival, because there just isn’t a big enough scale,” Milbourn said. “There just aren’t enough people doing it, so you can’t take advantage of any sort of network effects.”
Though he considers cassette tapes to be just tokens, and not living things, Milbourn holds on to tapes with sentimental value from his youth.
“I’ve got memories that are looped in there, and those are hard to let go,” said Milbourn.
Follow Shelby Chapman on Twitter @ShelbyEm15.
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