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Can Cassettes Really Be Making a Comeback?

23/11/2015 13:31 GMT | Updated 23/11/2016 10:12 GMT

In what seems like a masochistic exercise of nostalgia, it seems that vinyl is not the only format to come back from the analogue graveyard. The humble cassette is making a return, my friends. Bands such as The Cribs and Father John Misty have been harking back to the good old days by selling cassette tapes alongside vinyl on their merchandise stalls. Indeed, the National Audio Company, which is one of the largest manufacturers of cassette tapes, claims to have sold 10 million cassettes over the past year. So is this merely another phase of the hipster revival, or is the cassette here to stay?

Anyone born in the golden pre-Noughties era has a memory of the good old cassette. Your eyes may glaze over when you recall listening to Stephen Fry's gentle lilt narrating Harry Potter, home recording personalized mix tapes, or even screwing the tangled film of a tape back into its coil with the end of a pencil. In a digital age where music is becoming more and more transient and disposable, I can understand the nostalgic appeal for artists and consumers.

Like vinyl, a cassette is a physical object complete with cover art and track list. It is something that can be collected, stacked in piles and strewn across the floor. This may seem trivial to digital giants but I don't think we should underestimate the advantage that having a tangible object has over the virtual format of a download. One of the selling points of vinyl, for example, is the artistry of the object as a whole. What you are given is not just a collection of songs but an aesthetically pleasing and collectable item, which can be shared and passed from hand to hand.

Streaming giant Spotify seems to be aiming to recreate this concept of sharing music in its marketing strategy. It bombards us with adverts, which tell us that 'music is for sharing', yet, personally, I don't think this can ever be successful digitally in the same way that it can in an analogue medium. As a free Spotify user, the consistent adverts don't do anything but remind me that these tracks aren't mine, even with Premium. You can make playlists tailored to your tastes, sure, but these tracks don't belong to you in any sense. Spotify isn't providing us with music which we can become emotionally attached to - it's providing us with a service.

Digital advocates argue that the lo-fi cassette is let down by audio quality. However, Matt Smith, cassette technician at distributor Duplication, disagrees. He says that 'What's cool about tapes is the way they wear out: the way a record gets scratched, a tape gets warped and warbly. [...] People even put a worn out tape effect on their digital master.'

Smith's response seems to expose a conflict in the future of audio. Some, such as Neil Young, are calling for an improvement in audio quality. His creation, the Pono Player, which looks deceptively like a Gameboy, exclusively plays higher quality FLAC files and aims to challenge the compressed audio files of MP3 and AAC. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the gritty, rough around the edges, nature of vinyl and the cassette is gaining popularity, and fast.

So far I've clumped cassette and vinyl together, but this doesn't tell us why cassettes in particular are experiencing something of a renaissance in popularity. Probably the most obvious reason is that cassettes are a great deal cheaper than its analogue sibling, to buy and to manufacture. The band Sleater Kinney sells their album 'No Cities to Love' at $9.00 on cassette, whereas the vinyl goes for $20.00 and the deluxe edition goes for $40.00. I can imagine that cassette players are a great deal cheaper than a record player too. This doesn't just apply to the consumer; cassettes are much faster to manufacture and distribute than their larger counterparts.

In fact, Canadian Indie band Alvvays self released their album last year on cassette in order to distribute it quickly before their first tour. Molly Rankin, the lead singer of the band says: 'We needed something to give people and the cassette was the best way to do it without the whole thing ending up online.' Other musicians seem to be following suit, with Urban Outfitters now stocking retro cassette players and music from the likes of Run the Jewels and Beach House, amongst their vinyl section.

This being said, no, I won't be rushing to buy a beaten up Walkman from Ebay. Yet, I think the rise in popularity for cassettes removes any doubt about the important shifts in the medium of music consumption. As companies like Tidal, Apple Music and Spotify are making music more and more accessible, yet at the same time more disposable, cassettes are a cheaper alternative to vinyl. They allow for the 'do-it-your-own-way' nature of playlists that services such as Spotify have to their advantage. Importantly however, they also retain the palpability of a physical object, the gritty sound and the cool and 'edgy' vibe that makes vinyl so popular.

Yes, the lo-fi audio quality of the cassette is a drawback, but in in a comforting way, as we grow older and become more battered and bruised, so do our records and tapes. Our music ages with us, and this kind of personal experience, that analogue provides, is exactly what streaming giants should be afraid of.