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.