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Mix Blog Studio: Cassettes? Really?

Mike Levine, who was there for the emergence of the Portastudio back in the day, is mystified by the resurgence in popularity of the audio cassette as a consumer playback medium.

I hereby declare myself officially clueless. I don’t make such a statement lightly, but after reading a recent press release about the resurgence of the audio cassette, I’m truly stupefied. The release, which was touting the reissue of albums by artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Lupe Fiasco & Kaelin Ellis, Major Lazer, Maren Morris, The Mavericks, Killswitch Engage and The Story So Far, contained the following statement:

…As all analog music formats (vinyl, cassette, reel-to-reel, etc.) continue to rise in popularity, cassette tapes now outpace all other formats—including vinyl—in consumer-market growth, more than quadrupling since 2011…

Assuming this is accurate, how did it happen? To me, the rebirth of the cassette is akin to Ford revealing that it’s bringing back the Edsel or Coca-Cola announcing that it’s re-releasing New Coke.

The cassette revival isn’t entirely new. Indie musicians have been putting out music on cassettes for a decade or so. I’ve always considered it a trendy, fringe phenomenon based more on faux nostalgia and the lo-fi esthetic that energizes certain music scenes. But if it’s true that cassette sales overall are growing faster than vinyl, I’m flabbergasted. Why bring back a format that everyone was happy to see in the rear-view mirror?

Read more Mix Blog Studio: 500 Series As a Gateway to Analog.

Look, I love analog as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Steve Albini), but just being an analog format is not sufficient to make up for the cassette’s high noise floor and tendency to unwind. Not to mention another significant drawback of cassettes: their linear nature. If you want to skip from, say, song 1 to song 8, you must wait while the tape fast-forwards before you can hear the song. For the reverse, you wait until it rewinds. It’s not exactly what you’d call “random access.”

Although I don’t have the stats at my fingertips, it’ a fair assumption to make that consumers who are buying cassette re-releases weren’t old enough to experience the “joys” of the original cassette era. If they did, I doubt they’d be so enthusiastic.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against analog delivery formats. You can certainly make an argument for vinyl records through a good stereo system offering a better listening experience than streaming digital. I don’t necessarily agree, but I can respect that point of view.

The LP is certainly the winner among the delivery formats when it comes to album art. A cassette box, on the other hand, has less room for graphics than a CD jacket. And did you ever try to read the song names on the back flap of a cassette?

During the original lifespan of the cassette, most people I know used them because they were the only recordable and portable consumer medium at the time. Cassettes allowed bands to put out music to sell at gigs. They also facilitated making mixtapes or copies of your albums for listening in the car. There was much less musical choice in those days, so it was great to be able to carry your favorite tunes with you.

But that doesn’t mean that anyone particularly liked cassettes. I think “tolerated” is a better word. About the best thing you could say about them was that they were better than 8-tracks. And that is not what I’d call high praise.

Without question, the aspect of the cassette that I despised the most was its penchant for unwinding. I remember multiple occasions when I was trying to wind the tape back into the cassette, using a pen or pencil to turn its tiny take-up reel. And often, the unspooled tape would get twisted up, so I’d first have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to straighten it all out.

So, no, not me. You won’t find any new cassettes in my music collection—or any old ones, either. But hey, if you want to listen to music that way, more power to you. Just make sure you have some pens or pencils on hand.