Respect the Cassette: What tapes and vinyl do for the way we listen to music
Do-it-yourself craftiness has always been about revival. From zines, posters, patchy jackets and bleach-jobs to grow-your-own and fix-it-yourself, DIY culture means retrieving a way of doing things that one or another march of progress has made obsolete while making its replacement much more expensive. But when it comes to DIY in the music scene, the culture has also relied on the mass production of mass-production devices like cassette and CD duplicators and copy machines. We may like to forget that there was a whole era of self-released CDRs with what seems now like terribly awkward album art, but all the silly ways to do without a jewel case that self-releasers invented only further prove how much DIY has been about craft over and above the division of labor. So tapes, like CDRs, have been part of a DIY mission but with at least one big difference: the tape revival is part of a broader recommitment to analog.
Of course, the digital vs. analog debate, almost always happening around vinyl, is a conversation that can only go so long before those in favor rehearse their lines and cross their arms while everyone else smirks at the cave-dudes and dudettes getting righteous about a medium that only a self-hating neurotic would commit to in this day and age: the warmer sound (hiss and pops), the flip-it-over listening experience (but my hands are full of cookie dough), the awesome album art (not on the spines), the connection to the past (every listen destroys). Yet no matter what audiophilic rationale vinyl-lovers or cassette-enthusiasts come up with, they are drawn first and foremost to the aura the object adds to the listening experience. And the oddest thing about digital-philes who really get into audio codec comparison -- dynamic range, null tests, time smears, noise floors, etc. -- is that they talk about digital formats with a collector’s impulse. For them, it's also about an aura.
The disagreement at the heart of the analog vs. digital debate, then, isn't about sound; it's about authenticity. Both sides are after that reverent connection to a source, they're just talking about different sources. For the digital archivist, it's about source fidelity in the peaks and valleys of the audio, the fantasy of a "lossless" listening experience. For the analog collector, it's about sourcing the object itself as it passes through the network of labels, distros, consumers, vendors, represses, resales, etc. It's about a social relation that comes to hang invisibly around the product as it circulates, the unbroken real-life connection back to the scene of the band or label -- unbroken by file transfers, shares, downloads, compression, zipping, unzipping, etc. I often get notes tucked into packages sent to me by artists and labels, even vendors. I have never got anything of the sort for a Bandcamp download, surely never for a Spotify test-spin. For the analog enthusiast, the digital world is not the real world.
If the tape revival is a follow-up to the vinyl renaissance that began the return to analog for a generation raised on CDs, the biggest advantage to tapes -- which gets mentioned over and over in interviews on the subject -- is the cost. Tapes are cheap to make and cheap to buy. (Often less than half the cost of vinyl and sometimes the same price as a download alone.) From that perspective, tapes certainly have a special place in DIY. But it would be too simple to chalk up the cassette comeback to the fact that modest-means collectors want some kind of object or that modest-means musicians just want something for the merch table.
Terms like "vinyl junkie" or "tape head" also miss the point. I admit buying LPs must seem like an expensive habit to those who have become accustomed to streaming and downloading. And buying cassettes must look like a desperately trendy replacement fix. But I don't think addiction metaphors fit what's going on with the return of analog in any of its forms. I also don't think that wanting to collect something to feel closer to a scene really explains the aura of listening to a cassette or an LP -- that feeling of being closer to those who made it, more in tune with the moment in history it represents. (CDRs circulated in the same way but do not compel the same enthusiasm.) So if it's not about sound and it's not about collecting, what's left? For me, committing to analog means committing to the album. In short, listening to analog is about staying in touch with a relatively young phenomenon in popular music: a curated set of songs meant to be a musical statement of their own. The suspicion many collectors that I know harbored for the CD, which is even more true of the mp3, comes from precisely the convenience of navigating the album or, now with mp3s, the thousand-plus songs of songs in even a modest collection. The shuffle function, the ease of the skip or the repeat, the smart playlist, the if-you-liked-this-then -- every advance in the ability to navigate the album takes listeners further away from the original context of a song, not as it was in the studio, but as it helped shape the pace of a deeper listening experience. Of course, you can buy an entire album on iTunes, but that's not how the platform's made to be used. And more importantly, that's not how it's being used.
By commitment to album culture, I don't just mean the extra financial commitment (or investment) that comes from taking on a run of five-hundred before hitting the tour or shelling out the big bucks for the privilege of owning an object uniquely stretched in time and space. Admittedly, in my more self-congratulatory moments, I tell myself the extra money is going to cover some fraction of an electric bill somewhere. Just as likely it goes to pay off debt. And whatever collectors imagine -- that five, ten, fifteen years down the line some tiny-run release is going to be worth ten times what they paid for it -- the reality is that we will never sell a collection for what it's really worth.
By commitment to album culture, I also don't mean a commitment to the typical A-side/B-side breakup of tracks on cassettes and LPs, even though I admit that the non-stop, track-after-track pace of an iTunes party makes me want to climb the walls. By album culture, I mean the belief that there's a different relationship to music that comes from a commitment to the long player. I mean album culture in contrast to single culture.
It's this difference between the album and the single that explains why the return to tapes and vinyl began among smaller labels. The single is categorically mainstream; it's a track selected and set in the context of mass appeal. The single is a way of listening. It's a way of listening that shuts out discovery. A singles mindset is content with the familiar, with more of the same by a different name.
When singles take over the airwaves we get commercial radio, where the same set of twenty songs are played ad nauseam for weeks or even months. But there are some obvious justifications for the usefulness of the single besides the fact that it was a heck of a lot easier for DJs to use on air without the worry of running into the next song as you would with an LP. Sometimes the whole album just isn't that good. I'm thinking of Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow or Buffalo Springfield's first album where singles like "The White Rabbit" and "For What It's Worth" stand so far above the rest of the tracks on the album. Sometimes a single can be the first small step into the complete discography as is the case with the Steely Dan tune "Dirty Work." And sometimes a single and its flip-side are all we have of an artist. That's why there's a big difference between 45s and singles and why 45 collectors really are a different breed. They're after the truly rare and obscure recordings that maybe never made it to an LP often by artists who may never have had the chance to release anything else.
In contrast to the singles-dominated radio culture, the album format made possible a way of listening that was more attached to home audio systems and the freedom they made possible and less confined to the tunnel-vision of many commercial stations. With that reorientation, the LP enlivened a musical counter-culture that reimagined the way an album was put together and in the process re-imagined what a musical experience could be. The full-length, long player brought with it instrumental interludes, bleeds and crossfades, studio chatter, multi-part songs, live albums, and most gloriously of all, tracks that stretched for the full twenty-odd minutes of a side. Rock music started to realize the format's possibilities sometime in the late 60s. Think of the way you listen to late Beatles albums versus the grab-bag arrangements of the early albums.
Of course, the rise of the album format helped pop bands branch out into experiment as concept albums became more sophisticated than Frank Sinatra's Songs for Young Lovers or so-and-so Sings Sacred Songs and began to approach the novelistic arcs of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Moody Blues' Days of Future Past. But concept albums yielded singles that could well stand on their own. For some rock musicians, however, the shift from the 45 -- designed for the popular two-and-a-half to three-minute song -- to the long-playing record, initially designed for the long movements of classical music, meant a shift in sound as well. Bands could now document the twenty-plus minute live jams, such as Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" on Live/Dead. (There was a single version released in 1968. It isn't even three minutes long.) Before that there was the first side-long rock jam, "Revelation" on Love's Da Capo in 1966. Some bands went on to fashion themselves around such signature jams. But there were even more radical experiments going on in the studio. Can's "Yoo Doo Right," the side-length improvisational on their debut Monster Movie (1969), is said to have been edited down from six hours, i.e., edited down to what they could fit on the side of an LP. The Mothers of Invention used sound collage and tape manipulation in "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" from Freak Out in 1966, as did the Beatles' still unreleased "Carnival of Light," recorded in 1967 for an early electronic music festival.
Maybe it's a coincidence that the LP was gaining ground over the 45 at the same rock outfits were adapting jazz improvisation on one hand and incorporating synthesizers on the other. It's difficult to underestimate the influence of Ornette Coleman's thirty-eight minute long "collective improvisation" spread out over two sides of Free Jazz in 1960 or the popularization of Moog synthesizers later in the decade. (Those in the know pronounce it "mogue.") But for me, the real experimental possibilities of the form came in An Electric Storm by White Noise, released in 1969. The needle stays in the groove, the tape keeps going and sooner or later you're halfway through the first side's unpredictable cut-and-paste transitions between cosmic electronics, filmic dialog, orgiastic moans, carnival tunes, guitar solos, and pop ditties -- all of which hang improbably together. It's hard to imagine experimental music breaking into rock music without the album as a way of getting around the single. It's hard to imagine picking a play-first radio hit coming out of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. (Actually, they did release a 7" of "Pachuco Cadaver". . . in France.)
Thinking more about album culture when it comes to the analog revival helps us see how choosing and adapting to a format can become part of the creative process. In other words, those who dismiss tapes as a fad aren't thinking about how the choice of format can become part of the artistic statement. Particularly when it comes to DIY culture, the choice to go tape or go vinyl, whether intended or not, is also a political statement. Choosing to buy and sell albums after iTunes is a way of pushing back against the hit-single sound of mainstream pop music that dominates commercial radio and TV. Dismissing the tape revival as a fad is like dismissing counter-culture because it's cool: neither take seriously the political statement implicit in the choice of format. The fad isn't on the merch tables of basement shows; it's when you walk into Barnes & Noble and see pitch-corrected vocalists on LP next to a brand new reissue of Still Crazy After All these Years.
With this in mind, some of the most interesting recent cassette releases that I've encountered have a special relationship to that format: New England dark folk outfit Blood Warrior's Letter Ghost was recorded on a failing four-track so that when listening to it on cassette, there's a moment when you wonder whether it's the recording or your tape player going. Something similar happens on the newest release from Harry Talin (aka Coleman Guyon), The Exciter, where frequent use of pitch bending gives the impression of a cassette slowing down, even as a drum machine keeps the beat. Relative newcomer, Iowa-based Yves Malone's first release was a box-set homage to 80s horror-film synth. Packaged in a VHS clamshell, Malone went the extra step of inventing covers for films that never existed -- Zenith City, Abysscoteque, The Echo People. The poster art, stills, and synopses are so convincing that a couple reviewers have lamented how hard the films are to find. What makes these releases special to me is the way the format informs the tradition in which the artist is working. Other artists have made analogous statements on vinyl, such as Leyland Kirby's work as The Caretaker in which he uses manipulated samples of well-worn 78s to evoke historical distance even as his work sounds profoundly contemporary. And then there's lock-groove loops and the fabled needle-destroyers. Releases like these may be exceptional or extreme, but they offer needed reminders of the materiality of music. And in an age where more and more tunes are melting into air, we need a little hiss to bring us down out of the clouds.