The 21st Century is bringing a yearning for physical objects and low fidelity – two threads that perfectly combine in the anachronistic cassette tape.

Now, I find talking about cassettes tends to get some chortles, perhaps people mumbling under their breath about hipsters. But as production times and costs rise for producing vinyl, cassettes are a way of producing consumable goods on the cheap, quickly. And that makes them a likely antidote to the ephemeral digital file, in a way that the bland office equipment of a USB stick is unlikely to accomplish.

Burn to tape, then, and you’ve got something to mail out to a Bandcamp fan for a few bucks, something with the music on it to give to someone at a record fair. And you can do this without a load of cash or scheduling your releases a half year in advance – welcome relief in an age in which so-called “underground” labels tend to be dominated by trust fund babies. (Sorry.)

It’s effectively an advert for The Vinyl Factory’s production facilities, but “Blank Tape” is a nice short film. And it gets at the crux of the issue: novelty factor or nostalgia alone can’t carry anything these days. You have to understand and desire the sound. That’s surely the essence of the post-digital, appreciating the idiosyncrasies of abandoned media as features, not bugs.

So, you get Sacred Tapes, Tesla Tapes, Astro:Dynamics, Bleep, and artists Helm and Ekoplekz (on PAN and Planet Mu.) It’s all heavy hitters of the underground scene in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s also all white and UK-based. It occurs to me that the economy of the cassette worldwide could make it an international medium. I found my own cassette collection was as likely to come from friends shopping India or Indonesia as Europe or the US. And that need not be traditional music, either – my experience is that the growing interest in raunchy low-fi is one that extends well beyond the Western world. There’s something, I suspect, waiting to happen here. Shipping or trading tapes across continents could let makers of weirdo dark music connect.

But one thing you shouldn’t do is scoff. We live in the era of all of the above – 192kHz, 64-bit and multichannel surround against mono 1-bit circuits and tapes and distortion and everything in between. Freed from the notion that we have to progress from A to B, we can enjoy all of it. And that seems a good thing.

Blank Tape: Electronic Cassette Culture

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    It occurs to me that the economy of the cassette worldwide could make it
    an international medium. I found my own cassette collection was as
    likely to come from friends shopping India or Indonesia as Europe or the
    US.

    of course, if there was actually a simple, easy, portable cross-platform way to share, oh, i don’t know, something as simple as a playlist, then maybe even the “economy of the cassette worldwide” would look a bit silly compared to the ease of trading music in digital format.

    alas, in our current age, YouTube (f’ing YouTube!) is more or less the only possible way to give a random person an ordered list of pieces of music and expect them to be able to play it, unless of course you’re willing to edit the N files into a single one.

    there was an amazing cassette scene in the UK in the 1978-1981 period. I still have a few of them. My favorite memory was of a band whose name should really have been re-used since: Sea of Wires (modular fanatics).

  • The Ramisco Maki Maki Rocking

    My hooves have always been fond of them there cassettes. It may sound ridiculous, but listening back to my latest EP on cassette brought me more joy than the digital version, the hiss and the crust seemed to breathe air into the songs and bring them to life.

    • DPrty

      I hear you on that hiss and crust. Anytime I fire up my old Casio CZ-101 I have to record to tape .. it adds that special patina. By the way come back over to your cdm post and check out the wall of video I just posted on cassette’s. Hopefully Peter doesn’t ban me for it, maybe he will see what a nicely curated collection it is and let it slide.

      • The Ramisco Maki Maki Rocking

        Now you’ve got me all jealous captain, used to have myself a CZ-1000 before it became aquatinted with a couple of unrighteous theives. I can imagine how it might work nicely with cassettes though. Yep, I spotted that video post of yours, dang, I shall give it a swatch when I’ve got some earhole time for sure!

        • DPrty

          Ah the CZ-1000 would definitely would lend itself to tape. 🙂 Sorry you lost that.

  • K7 lovers can listen to Tony Coulter’s Tape Hiss shows every two weeks, Tuesdays at Noon, America/New York time (currently EST), on WFMU’s Give The Drummer Radio Stream. They aren’t archived, unlike almost everything else on WFMU, but they are really great live. http://wfmu.org/playlists/TC

    And I must mention the awesome Bedroom Cassette Masters compilations too: https://bedroomcassettemasters.bandcamp.com

    • DPrty

      BedRoom Cassette Masters looks great! Thank you.

  • DPrty
    • James Husted

      I still have the Portastudio that I used back in the late 70’s. The drive belt is stretched so it currently doesn’t work, which is a shame since I have boxes of 30-40 year old cassettes recorded on that machine, many with things you just can’t get anymore (lots of shortwave recordings of Radio Moscow and such).

  • Another terrible opinion piece. Poorly written and executed whilst still managing to passive/aggressively insult a multitude of people across multiple points of the socio construct. The entire purpose of this ‘article’ (other than to pidgeonhole, typecast, generalize and insult) appears to be promoting poor sound quality as a quick fix solution for rapid dissemination of audio output rather than present free and high quality self publication platforms due to a pretentious ‘post digital’ stance. And yes, as mentioned early on in your text, this does entirely reak of hipsterism.

    • Jimbob Atzke

      Bad day at the office?

      • No. It’s actually rather sunny and pleasant out here.

        I actually feel a tinge of sadness for those whom have chosen office life.

    • joseph guisti

      He saw a cool video relevant to our interests. He presented the video for our perusal. He front loaded the post with some statements about how people might be quick to judge this by its cover, and suggested reasons why they shouldn’t—fairly, I might add. He mentioned trust fund babies as a reflection of a pretty constant conversation we’ve been having for the past five years or so about how hard it is to get a record cut when the factories are dominated by orders from people more interested in money than culture.

      But I feel like the issues is that something here is personally upsetting you. Tell us more.

      • The ‘issue’ (for me) is poor writing and the degradation of publication standards. This is not personally upsetting to me, though it does cause a slight irritation. The ‘front loading’ (as you termed it) was where this article descended into the realms of personal opinion rather than being an interesting article with broad reaching appeal.

        Whilst i do concur that the main ‘problem’ in pressing vinyl is that “the factories are dominated by orders from people more interested in money than culture”, articles that i have read on several sites including CDM would indicate that it is major record labels whom have had the largest impact on the record pressing industry due to high volumes of manufacture as well as very large budgets rather than independent labels helmed by ‘trust fund babies’ or such imagined entities.

        • Jimbob Atzke

          Sorry, Scott, but judging by your two comments here, you mistake a blog post that does not reflect your view of the world as something that is “poorly written”. There is no passive aggressive undertone in it, there are no insults. If you feel insulted by a recital of tropes and stereotypes – you are, frankly, a bit thin-skinned or feel caught out. On the other hand, you yourself react quite openly aggressive and with a quite pronounced tone of superiority towards Peter. I’m not him, I don’t even know him, but I’m sure, like most of us, he would welcome constructive criticism. You really should work on a more diplomatic approach if that is your goal. Or, you know, if you don’t like the article, you could just go and read something else. That’s always an option.

          • i do not see the world , i am blind.

            clearly we all have our own opinion and the luxurious right to express such.

            ahhhhhh….

          • Jimbob Atzke

            Ah, the good old killer argument.
            Have a great week everyone!

          • joseph guisti

            Was it the comment about white people? Is that what got to you?

  • PM

    Gaaah, so tired of ”hipster” being thrown around as an insult all the
    time. No one’s forcing anyone to listen to poor sound quality against their
    will, there’s still vinyl, FLAC, streaming and all of that great stuff for those that can’t
    stand the hiss. (The great thing about Bandcamp is of course that you can get
    both tape hiss AND lossless for the price of one).

    What I see here is a newfound appreciation for cassette
    culture. The DIY aspect of it goes deeper than just being able to record and
    duplicate the music medium itself. A lot of labels and artists are putting so
    much effort into the artwork and packaging as well.

    Mainly through Instagram I have gotten some insight into the
    global beat scene, where artists, label owners and fans are really connecting
    across continents and supporting each other’s releases. Check for example 77
    Rise in the US, Muj Beats in the UK or Move Cut Clone from Sweden.

    For those who are interested, I’ve recently found that
    Medium has a lot of interesting articles under the ”cassette culture” tag,
    after reading this inspiring piece by the beatmaker Netm8kr:

    https://medium.com/@netm8kr/cassettes-back-at-it-again-f961649befdf#.stb6j7m3e

  • Mladen Ilic

    “…the anachronistic cassette tape”

    If it is being manufactured, sold and sought after in volumes today, how is it “anachronistic”? This “retro” labeling of formats and media should end. Tapes and records are as contemporary media as any.

  • Derek And Clive

    I couldn’t wait to get away from tape and vinyl. Depends I suppose on whether you want to hear the sounds actually produced in the studio or recorded live. Or whether for some reason you like the sound of artefacts produced by the medium – the substrate your music is being delivered on.

    No reason why someone couldn’t produce a nice big box for a pretty USB memory-stick.

    Or just produce a book etc delivered by Amazon or Bandcamp etc with case and all – to go with that 24/196 pristine album out just downloaded and get to listen to what the creator intended – exactly how they intended it to be heard. If they want the sound of hiss or vinyl crackles, warps etc on their masterpiece – they can easily arrange for that sound to be in their track. Along with any other sonic artefacts they like to include in their art.

  • NRGuest

    I suppose the good thing about tape is no one mistakenly argues that it has “better sound quality” than a digital file.

    • Robin Parmar

      Given how badly most people produce music now, that is highly debatable. Besides, if you never used a Marantz PMD 430 or Sony Pro Walkman you’d have no idea how “good” cassette tapes could sound.

      • DPrty

        @Robin I have a Marantz PMD511 and you are absolutely correct on the sound quality out of them.

  • James Husted

    This is very interesting. I have recently had the opposite happen to me. I was in a couple of bands in the late 70’s-earley 80’s (Young Scientist, K7SS, Sequencer People) that released all our stuff on Cassettes (albums were out of our price range) and recently I have had two record labels (Vinyl on Demand and Domestica) ask me to release our old cassettes on Vinyl. Vinyl on demand (http://www.vinyl-on-demand.com) also released a LP box set of electronic music cassettes recordings called American Cassette Culture featuring many cassette release of that era. The interest in these older cassettes has surpassed me and now I can see a hint why. Cassettes are being looked at again.

  • DPrty
  • dyscode

    I expierenced the 70s and 80s, I am done with tape forever. And never looked back.

  • Robin Parmar

    I am as critical of analogue fetishism as anyone (well, more than most) but am releasing my next album on cassette just the same. That’s because it is all about me tapping into my experience of the cassette culture and industrial/noise music circa 1980. This is nostalgic no doubt, but also self-aware. Cassette had certain physical properties but, more importantly, certain social properties that I find intriguing. For instance, there’s little doubt that the exchange of tapes using fanzines and music mags generated a subculture all its own — in some ways anticipating how the internet does the same. I’d rather celebrate that than condemn it to the dustpan of history just because digital files sound “better”.

    • DPrty

      Hey if that new album is being processed through your Marantz PMD 430 I would like to buy a copy of that cassette. I’m interested in how that turns out as I maybe doing the same only from a PMD511.

  • baju-baju

    I’m thinking 3D printed wax cylinders.

  • TinyKurtRussell

    “It’s all heavy hitters of the underground scene in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s also all white and UK-based”
    Does everything have to be about race/inclusion? I don’t get it.

  • SyntheticJuice

    I’m terribly late to this discussion, but i just made a cassette tape with digital download release, and it was a lot of fun – taking consideration of Side A and B, adjusting how the tape can add coloration/saturation, picking out the shell color and designing the J card..

    and it’s cheap too. I got 25 C23 tapes with nice cases, and padded mailing envelopes shipped to my door for $50. Shipping a cassette tape in the continental US with USPS is under $3!

    Plus it’s nice to have a physical object to show, even if does just end up being a transport for a digital download code.