T.V. Coahran finds great satisfaction in the way old car stereos grab cassette tapes right out of your hand. "It's comparable to putting the needle down on a record and you hear the little scratch," says the founder of Seattle's fledgling GGNZLA label, home to several lo-fi acts (including the band trifecta of the Spits, Spurm, and Butts). "It's more satisfying than some unseen, misunderstood lasers transferring data to your computer from a CD."
Indieland is always nostalgic, though. When "chillwave" hit last year, people were likening the music of hazy '80s babies Neon Indian and Washed Out to the artificially slowed, warped, and woolly sound of old cassettes. And in noise and avant-garde circles, tapes have remained prevalent in circulation for years. But recent critical darlings like Deerhunter and Dirty Projectors have been quietly putting out widely distributed cassette releases — and selling out copies. This year, even bigger players have been catching on. West Coast flagship Sub Pop helped new signing Dum Dum Girls sell 400 limited-edition cassettes through its online store. Promotional gimmickry? Perhaps. But then what to make of the label's Hardly Art subsidiary's new partnership with GGNZLA to reissue a chunk of its CD catalog on cassette?
Vinyl collecting may be the dominion of digitally disillusioned audiophiles, but it's more difficult to pin down the appeal of cassettes. The format is seemingly outdated in a bygone age with skip-track buttons and no hiss. Are tapes merely holdouts from a generation's attic, a cheaper commodity in a tanked economy, or a conscious rebellion against faceless MP3 culture, where most up-and-coming artists may as well exist only as pixels and data on a screen? Possibly all three.
But about that hiss. "I'd rather listen to a degraded, played-a-thousand-times cassette than a shitty MP3 at low bitrate through crappy earbuds," says Nick Southall, the author of Stylus Magazine's widely circulated "Imperfect Sound Forever" article from 2006 on the controversial overcompressed mastering of CDs. "You might not get the hi-hat sparkle or whatever, but that fuzzy warmth is a million times more appealing to me."
Kelly O, a Seattle photographer and tape collector, insists that music fans shouldn't overlook "the ability to purchase new and old music, risk-free, for between $3 [and] $6. Sometimes you can't even buy a bottle of Budweiser for that."
Coahran explains GGNZLA's success in sly terms via e-mail: "Punk rockers lurv [sic] tapes. Also drunk people and nerds do." Sean Bohrman, co-owner of the Bay Area's Burger Records — home to cassette releases by Black Lips, Nobunny, and recent Sub Pop signings Jaill, among dozens more — has more common reasoning: His friends have cassette players in their mostly older cars. Plugging in an iPod adapter through an out-of-date stereo doesn't produce cleaner sound than actual cassettes. Considering that Burger recently sold 500 tapes in less than two weeks ("100 tapes to every one CD," Bohrman says), it may just be that simple.
"It's amazing, actually," Mike McKinney of Burger's manufacturer M2 Communications says of the uptick in tape sales. M2's cassette production took a 75 percent hit five years ago, but has returned by 30 percent in the last two years — despite 2009's distinction as the all-time lowest-selling year for cassettes in the U.S. Not a tape guy himself ("CDs are quiet and crisp"), he nevertheless chalks up the recent independent boom in sales to the tapes' physical durability over CD and vinyl, the antiquity, and the "warmer" sound.
Most people interviewed for this piece still doubted tapes' long-term prospects in carving out a niche as strong as vinyl's. They consider the budding cassette culture more of a temporary distraction from the deluge of MySpace artists and blogs foisted on us daily. Still, the simplicity has its rewards. "It's a whole lot easier to pop a cassette in when you come home kind of drunk after a show than to go looking for that shit online," Kelly O says.