Tape it or leave it: Considering the cassette release

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I probably haven't listened to anything on cassette since my formative years, which were deep in the 1980s—a glorious decade, mind you, in which sad new-wave boys wore makeup and cordless phones roamed free. And while I've noticed an increasing trend of bands releasing albums on the unlikely format of cassette tape, I'd rather not call the medium a "throwback," or this movement a "resurgence," because cassette tapes never truly went away . . . at least mine didn't, judging by my massive cardboard box of tapes which holds such hits as the Pretty in Pink soundtrack and, ahem, George Michael's Faith, which I will promptly listen to once I finish writing this. But anyway, with all kinds of bands dropping new releases on tape, a Carrie Bradshaw-esque voice-over in my head couldn't help but wonder: Why, in this digital age and vinyl revival, would a band ever release an album on cassette?

There are certainly reasons not to, the obvious one being that the thing that has disappeared is the tape player. Here's a quick poll: If you have a cassette player, raise your hand. See? There are only two of you, and you just so happen to be my dad, and a hipster. So far, this does not look good for record sales. Seriously though . . . to be fair, one could argue that many people don't have turntables, so why put something out on vinyl? And believe it or not, some people don't even own computers, so why put out MP3s?

To enlighten myself (and maybe you) on why a band would consider putting an album out on cassette, I talked to Whitney Johnson (E+/Verma) who just released a tape last week under the name of her solo project, Matchess.

"I use cassette tapes in my live set, so it made sense to do a cassette release," she says. "Cassettes sound good, second only to vinyl. And vinyl is so expensive. I think people are willing to take more of a risk on putting out a tape than a record." Word. There's a good reason why Electrical Audio bought up all the analog tape on earth when it was going out of style, and that reason is that when you put noise to tape, it fucking sounds good. Turnaround time for cassettes is quick, too. And it's comforting to know that if you actually wanted to get all DIY, you could make a record in your bedroom and reproduce it quickly, on the supercheap, with a high-speed dubbing system—all in one night. Tape allows that possibility where vinyl doesn't. And sure, you can do that with CD-Rs, but first you might want to consider becoming a meth addict or a patient saint because the added time to eject, insert, and start the burning software can sometimes take more than all night. Besides, I have to agree with Whitney on this simple point: "CDs are just kind of ugly, and they break easily."

With physicality being a dying breed these days, it's also nice to have a material artifact. Even in process, hearing the click-clack sounds of rewind-stop-play-record on my four-track feels more satisfying than making music while simultaneously watching a sound wave in Pro Tools. And without a visual to distract me, I listen harder. Another benefit of the 3D object: "Lots of tiny surfaces for artwork," says Whitney.

You know what else is cool about tapes? Magic, that's what. "Cassettes are in the shape of the golden rectangle," Whitney says. "My favorite childhood movie, Donald in Mathmagic Land, explains it best. Minute 7:00 or so, the Spirit says that the Greeks admired the golden rectangle for its 'beautiful proportions and magic qualities.' Don't miss the part before that about Pythagoras's jam session with the secret society of the pentagram."

In short, cassette releases aren't for taking over the world. That's what YouTube is for. But if you're interested in doing a short-run release that sounds great and is really cheap, tapes might be your jam. And since cassettes aren't a widely used format, if someone seeks out yours, you'll know they want to specifically hear your music—which is, perhaps, more meaningful than a frivolous impulse listen on SoundCloud.

Andrea Bauer writes about band life every Saturday.

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