Saturday, April 19, 2014 · 7:06 p.m.

Cassette culture: The relevancy of analog

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Since the introduction of the compact disc, the compact cassette format has been dwindling in both appeal and function. All the albums you might have bought back in the '80s and early '90s have more than likely been replaced by their CD counterpart, and it's been more than two decades since any car came standard with a tape deck. This isn't necessarily an overt comment on the invalidity of medium itself, simply a changing of the technological guard.

But for some people, this change never took place—or rather, they just couldn't quite let go of those little rectangles. It may have been a bit of nostalgia or simple musical goodwill that kept people from ditching their tapes, but regardless of the reasons, they simply got shuffled to the back of their respective music collections, ready to come out at a moment's notice when that analog itch struck.  

Now, there's no debate that the audio quality of cassettes is inferior to that of CDs, but much like the unequaled warmth you get from an LP, the cassette format has its own appeal for many people. Besides the fact that producing a large quantity of cassettes is far cheaper than that same number of CDs, there's something almost toy-like about having that little piece of magnetic tape and cheap plastic to hold in your hand. It's something to be prized and coveted. It also feels inherently sturdier than a CD, mostly because you aren't constantly afraid of scratching a tape the way you are with a CD.

It should be noted that some people are quick to assign a certain stigma to the recent interest in tapes by labeling it as a passing hipster's fad—but those people are basing their misguided assumptions on nothing more than the generalization that tapes are ... well, tapes—and that any lifespan they might have once had has come and gone. Other musical cynics claim that some people tend to like them because they can be seen as just another way to set yourself apart from the mainstream musical mentality. But this view, again, isn't based on even a cursory knowledge or interest in the medium and is a kneejerk response to their resurgent popularity.

And though you'll find countless independent tape labels stretched out across Facebook and Twitter, some larger labels are also getting into the cassette action. Los Angeles-based label Stones Throw has paired up with fellow L.A. imprint Leaving Records to release some of their artists on tape; and Sacramento, Calif.'s Burger Records has released dozens of albums on cassette that previously had CD or vinyl distribution. You'll even find the occasional mainstream artist who sees the need and opportunity in the format and will release their albums accordingly. It's becoming less and less curious to see a merchandise table filled with LPs, CDs and tapes.

But why should you listen to tapes? That's the real question, right? 

Similar to LPs, most cassette releases come with a digital code to download the album. So what makes the physicality of tapes so desirable to some people?

Well, I think that's the answer to the question. It is the physicality of the medium that draws people. Some people like to hold a CD case in their hands when they listen to music; others like the feel of a tape case. It's simply a matter of tangible history. What we can hold we imprint on and therefore remember fondly. Music is simply a vehicle for a part of our analog collective history, and the tape is one of the means of its conveyance.

But that doesn't tell the whole story, either. There are certain musicians who favor the cassette for the very reason others consider it obsolete: its artifice and variable sonic fidelity. Harsher strains of electronic music gain new perspective by inhabiting this lo-fi terrain, and pop loses its luster and feels as though it's being run through a haze of distortion and grit. There are exceptions, of course. And these particular artists find a welcome challenge in overcoming the limitations of the cassette and creating vast sonic landscapes spread out across the finite length of each strand of magnetic tape.

But where do you start?

Cassette culture is as wide and varied as the genres that it covers and can often feel as exclusive as a secret club with elaborate handshakes. But it doesn't have to be that way. There are a handful of labels that can ease you into cassette ownership with a minimum of difficulty. I'm going to list a few of them here, so you can make your own decision regarding the relevancy of the analog medium; because by now, I hope you're well-acquainted with my thoughts on the matter. Listen to the songs below, explore the labels and discover a new favorite artist ... maybe.

Already Dead Tapes (experimental folk, ambient)

Constellation Tatsu (abstract electronics, drone)

I Had an Accident Records (ambient, beats)

Burger Records (garage rock, indie rock)

Leaving Records (lo-fi beats, indie rock)

NNA Tapes (minimalist pop, drone)

Crash Symbols (indie rock, electronic pop)

Spring Break Tapes (orchestral pop, instrumental beats)

Field Hymns (drone pop, electronic pop)

Chill Mega Chill Records (synth pop, indie rock)

So now you have a place to begin. And like anything worth doing, it may take some time before you find something that immediately clicks with you. But trust me, it's there to find. 

Whether you're looking for indie rock, folk, fractured electronics or beat-driven rhythms, there's a cassette label and a cassette for you. Don't be put off by people who are convinced that tapes are simply a passing fad. It may just be worth your while to dust off that old Walkman. After all, there's probably a tape or two hiding away in your own music collection. And even if it's just "Slippery When Wet" by Bon Jovi, grab a pair of AA batteries, turn up the volume and blast "You Give Love a Bad Name" until the person sitting next to you tells you to turn it down—and then turn it up even louder.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on FacebookTwitter or by emailThe opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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