Cassette Revival: Chewed up, not spat out

CIAN TRAYNOR 10/30/10 Irish Times.com

Although Sony has retired the Walkman after more than 30 years, the cassette tape is enjoying a comeback, with new bands embracing the cheap and quirky recording format

FOR A CLUNKY, inconvenient format that’s facing extinction, the cassette tape is making a remarkable comeback. Few, if any, resisted its decline through the 1990s. Yet the outpouring of nostalgia following Sony’s decision this week to retire the Walkman reflects the cassette’s renewed cultural relevance. Tape has quickly become a ubiquitous fashion accessory, reappearing as belt buckles, notebooks and wallets, and there are now more than 100 cassette-only record labels.

For those too young to remember the frustration of having tapes chewed up and batteries sapped, outmoded technology holds a certain charm. Cassettes were once the quintessential DIY format, and when the Walkman arrived, in 1979, it was the first time music could be personally customised, mobile and private all at once. Though it always retained a cultural cachet for its role in circulating underground music during the 1980s, news of the portable cassette player’s demise may only help tape’s resurgence.

When Polaroid announced the discontinuation of its instant film in December 2007, the company soon realised it had underestimated the format’s popularity. Believing it could no longer compete with the digital-camera market, Polaroid destroyed the negatives needed to create new film in 2003 and stockpiled enough film to last another 10 years. The remaining supply began disappearing from shops and fetching a premium on eBay. By 2008 almost nothing was left.

It took the last-minute intervention of Florian Kaps, an entrepreneur and Polaroid fanatic, to convince the company not to destroy its machinery. Kaps insisted there could be a way back for Polaroid, if it could just develop a new form of film from scratch. He was right.

In March, Polaroid successfully launched a new film (rebranded as the “Impossible Project”), saving analogue instant photography and satisfying the resulting boom in demand.

Like Polaroid, cassettes represent a tangible novelty at a time when popular culture feels increasingly ephemeral. And, like Polaroid, tape has cultivated an online community dedicated to keeping it alive.

For new bands, tape makes practical sense. It’s the cheapest format to manufacture, and offering a limited release wrapped in one-of-a-kind artwork is a good way of rewarding the support of fans.

Next month the Dublin band Cap Pas Cap release their debut album on tape and vinyl through Skinny Wolves, one of several Irish indie labels embracing cassette culture. Jamie Farrell, who runs the label as well as being the band’s bassist, says tapes offer something that can’t be replicated by browsing a hard drive.

“Once we had the songs ready we thought hard about ordering tapes, so you could listen to one side in full and come back to the other later,” he says. “It’s good to get away from the computer and create a separate, organic experience.”

And the demand for that experience is growing, according to Philip Marshall, who set up the cassette-only label Tapeworm in London last year. “In a world where you can cherry-pick downloads and dispense with the album format altogether, people are realising there’s a quirky set of characteristics, physically and sonically, to the cassette,” he says.

So far every release on the Tapeworm label has sold out, and Marshall is conscious the increasing popularity of tape is quickly depleting the supply of blank cassettes.

“There will be a point where there is no tape left,” he says. “When that happens, I fear we’ll have to end the project.” By the time it dies out completely, tape could be more popular than it has been in decades, he says.

Death, it seems, is still the best career move in music.

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