In the early 1990s, cassettes were on life support. By the end of the decade, they were dead on arrival.
Sure, the long-cherished format for delivering music to the masses still lurked in the musical underground where those in niche scenes used it to either maintain tradition or trumpet inaccessibility. Outshined by the durability and portability of digital music, aficionados nonetheless praised its warm, analog sound.
Fast forward to today's merch table where the format has been dusted off and given new life as a valid format for new releases. There are handmade, screen-printed covers, limited edition issues, and digital download codes for those who went over to the cold, dark side of MP3s. And it's not just unknown bands, but larger-profile indie acts such as Dirty Projectors, Deerhunter and Oneida that have embraced the possibilities of tapes.
That's right: Cassettes — of all things — are making a comeback.
Yes, those warbled, hissing, knotted treasures that gave us the ability to illegally copy songs long before recordable discs — songs on the radio that begged to be replayed over and over, even if we had to chop off the ends due to DJ talk-over, or albums passed between friends that couldn't be found at the local chain store.
Creating mix tapes for our high-school crushes became an art form, one documented in books such as "Love is a Mixtape" by Rob Sheffield or "Mixtape: The Art of Cassette Culture" by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Along with long hair, live show tape-trading was one of the very few similarities found between Grateful Dead and Slayer fans.
Except for a small selection of used inventory, cassettes are still off the radar at stores such as Plan 9 Music. But for local artists such as Lost Tribe, This is Your Life, Sportsbar and White Laces, their first releases were available on cassette, usually accompanied by the requisite digital download.
Landis Wine of White Laces says the band sold out of two different cassette runs. "We weren't ready to do vinyl yet and I didn't want to do a CD," he says, "but we wanted something that people could pick up and hold on to."
The tape is an artifact that is incredibly cheap to make (as little as 20 cents apiece), and can come in a rainbow of color options that epitomize the prevailing '80s nostalgia. Exclusive tracks also ensure that cassettes won't become obsolete, which is why Fat Shadow, featuring ex-Pink Razors Erin Tobey and Jeff Grant, released a cassette containing older versions of five songs that appeared on its first full-length record.
For a generation accustomed to discovering music on lo-fidelity websites such as YouTube and Myspace, cassettes actually can offer a more refined listening experience. Lo-fi also holds a special place in the heart of do-it-yourself culture and your band's four-track demos don't sound any worse on cassettes than on any other media. Besides, CDs have their own playback problems, like scratches, smudges and skipping, that can render them unplayable.
Not so with tapes. "They decay and show wear without becoming completely useless," Wine says. "[The music] just takes on a different form." Especially for experimental, noise or no-wave artists, tape distortions become just another quirk in the track. Somewhat surprising is that new, high-quality decks and Walkman units are still being manufactured, so you can still find players that won't swallow your tape for good.
The resurgence of vinyl may indicate a return to full-album listening, but remember that the cassette is the one format that doesn't allow the listener to skip quickly between songs. Let's just hope that cassingles aren't the next big thing.