For the past two years, music media has been chattering about how hipsters were once again embracing the lowly compact cassette. They confusedly questioned why this should be and looked with suspicion in the direction of vinyl records, hissing, “This is your fault, isn’t it?”
The fuel behind the “cassette revival” story has dissipated, much in the way that other temporary forms of madness – YouTube videos of killer clowns, feral hogs, “Yanny,” raiding Area 51 – has. I feel safe in voicing the assertion that only a small subsection of the population was deep into getting those cassette players rolling again.
Some of the instigating factors for cassettes’ Lazarus-like resurrection emerged from vinyl’s similar return, but there are problems in the correlation. The first is experiential. The process of playing a record is far different than that of playing a digital file. There’s a different commitment involved. Yet cassettes are far more in line with digital, for accessibility, portability, and with better players, functionality. Cassettes were meant for on-the-go usage, and track-search, clunky though tape systems were with it, was a real feature.
Another factor is the math that measures vinyl’s return. The more I read about this, the more perplexed I get, because it seems record purchases are being measured against digital sales, which have been declining for years. The notion that Spotify would spur more sales, or at the very least supplement income through their subscription model over their free-with-ads model, has not proven out. In this, I find that vinyl’s rise is not so much an increase, but a hold as the rest of the landscape sinks. Of course the mountains look taller when the river runs dry. It’s not about the mountains, though.
Throw cassettes into this lopsided calculus and – certainly! – it’s going to look like something is happening. Yet that motion is tiny, tiny, tiny. Again, it’s a molehill in comparison, but as the river recedes, the illusion of growth is deceptive. And you know what? That doesn’t really matter. Cassette fans aren’t sticking with the format because of some signalling of popularity.
Cassettes do not sound bad. That is a long held argument that should be buried. I defer to Mat Taylor, host of the YouTube series Techmoan, who rightly pointed out that tapes sounded lousy because they were played on cheap equipment, often through garbage headphones. Further, cheap equipment played to tapes’ dominant selling point: portability. Car stereos and personal players were notorious for power fluctuations, being in high heat, humid and sticky conditions, and not having the benefit of stationary electronics. By all measures, tapes should have jammed up even more than they did, and sounded worse than they did under those pressures.
That said, cassette performance cannot hope to beat a digital file’s in terms of fidelity and clarity, no warbles, “wow & flutter,” side A/B crosstalk, etc. I don’t think even vinyl beats digital. In both cases, it’s because – to get optimal performance – you need optimal equipment.
So yes, the cassette revival among so-called hipsters is a real thing, but a temporary thing, like kale mania, avocado toast, man-bun hairstyles, and eventually even lumberjack beards. These are not in place because of a rational decision. Instead, they exist and persist mainly for their irrationality, for their attention-seeking qualities. These should be politely, but solidly, disregarded the same way the 8-track tape revival was (yes, that was a thing, too). Don’t forget: you did some weird crap as a kid too, just to show off.
For others, and I think the majority of those riding the cassette wave are exactly in this mindset, it’s just fun. Cassettes endured because even if they didn’t sound perfect, they sounded good. Do you think people would have stuck with them from ’77 to ’92 if they sounded terrible? They were practical then, but not now. And still, there was something about taking the cellophane off of a Warner Bros. tape, opening up the case, and smelling the oxides that were trapped under all that plastic. That smell probably did me some brain damage, but it remains a fond memory, particularly when I bought and wore out Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. We bonded with friends over cassettes, tried to woo dates with cassettes, snagged new tunes off of the radio with cassettes…it would be crazy to not have strong positive feelings about the format.
So, maybe for a moment, we could just enjoy things and allow others to enjoy things without browbeating them about the logic of it. Fun is not logical, but absolutely necessary.