Is this cassette shit getting out of hand?

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I first started covering the resurgence of the cassette tape early last year with a review of Blut Der Nacht’s demo and a mammoth piece on the various wares of the infamous Crepusculo Negro and Rhinocervs labels.  I instantly fell back in love with the format that had enchanted me in my younger years; I was once the proud owner of a big brown Fisher Price tape recorder which I would use to listen to music, interview family members and record skits with friends, eventually graduating to a boom box when I got older. Some of the first metal music I ever owned was on cassette (specifically a single of Metallica’s “One,” aka the song that kick-started this over two decade long love affair with all things heavy).  Granted, the ultra-corrosive black metal of a band like Blut Der Nacht was pretty far removed from jamming Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the Fisher Price in my youth, but I was still reminded of how my initial interest in music was sparked by cassettes.

Yes, part of my appreciation of cassettes was rooted in pure nostalgia for simpler times, but beyond that, the format seemed perfectly suited to underground black metal; a deliberately lo-fi, archaic vessel for deliberately lo-fi, archaic music.  Most important of all, the music I was hearing, especially the aforementioned Rhinocervs and Crepusculo Negro stuff, was some of the most unique and innovative black metal I’d heard in the last ten years.

Some might argue that bands like Volahn, Arizmenda and Odz Manouk deserved better than being released on cassette, but the aesthetic brought a mystique to the genre that had been missing since the nineties.  Many scoffed, but to me it all made sense.  Black metal began as a clandestine affair, and a new generation of bands releasing music on cassette seemed like legitimate attempt to take the genre back underground, a great big flaming fuck you to the modern metal scene that had watered down, sanitized and popularized it.

But then something happened.  Cassettes actually caught on.  Big metal labels, smelling a trend and an opportunity to cash in on nostalgia, started putting releases on tape; big league bands like Pig Destroyer, Old Man Gloom and Witchcraft have all had their latest albums released on everyone’s favorite dead format.  Even Carcass’ highly touted comeback album Surgical Steel will be released on cassette.

I understand that it’s a record label’s job to sniff out trends and attempt to capitalize on them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve missed the point of the cassette revival completely.  I’m sure Relapse and Nuclear Blast will move a few tapes, but what they don’t seem to understand is that releasing music on cassette makes sense for nasty-ass black metal and noise bands who probably recorded their shit in some dimly lit basement or ramshackle garage.  The deliberately abrasive, poorly-recorded nature of the music works with a format that’s going to give you equally poor sound quality.  It doesn’t make any fucking sense whatsoever to release an album that was recorded/mixed/mastered in a state-of-the-art professional studio and cost thousands of dollars to make on an inferior format.  When I listen to Carcass, I don’t want to hear fucking tape hiss, I want to hear every minute detail of Bill Steer’s riffs and Colin Richardson and Andy Sneap’s accompanying sonic architecture.

As if big labels attempting to cash in by suckering people into buying janky versions of their marquee releases wasn’t enough, many smaller labels and bands have started to believe the tape revival hype.  Hey, I realize that they’re kind of a hot item right now, but I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to pay $9.00+ for your band’s album on cassette, especially when I can get brand new CDs for $5.00 – $8.00… what the fuck are you, high?  And no, I don’t give a fuck if it comes in a wooden box you bought at Hobby Lobby and burned the band’s logo into, or if it comes in a gunny sack with some twigs and animal bones ‘n’ shit you found in your parents’ backyard.  This is heavy metal, not the fucking craft fair your mom and grandma go to every year (I’m sure they’d be happy to do some macrame or whittle some wood with you or something, if you still really need to scratch that itch).  The initial appeal of cassettes was that they were a cheap, no-frills way to pick up on new and interesting music, and unfortunately that’s starting to get lost in an avalanche of greed, pretentiousness and gimmickry.

As with anything in metal, there are a handful of labels and bands that are still getting it right (check my past reviews for specifics), but more and more the cassette craze is largely starting to feel like a bad joke.  I’m curious to know reader opinions on this.  Has the the tape revival already gone to shit?  Are you willing to shell out ten bucks or more for one?  Do you care if the tape comes in a burlap bag with a vial of the band’s blood and some dried up leaves?  Let ‘er rip in the comments.

19 thoughts on “Is this cassette shit getting out of hand?

  1. I totally agree that cassettes of big metal releases like the Carcass one are totally pointless, but I do have a soft spot for tapes on the whole. Exitium is an excellent cassette based label for example, although I do wish they would make their stuff available in other formats as well, even if it is just digital downloads. Colloquial Sound Recordings release their stuff on tape, but offer immediate free download of their releases as well, I think this is the right way to do it. I am on the cusp of picking up a new Walkman for myself so that I can enjoy the exitium releases, amongst others, as there seem to be enough high quality tape exclusive releases to make it worth my while now.

  2. Cassettes were always an awful format that should have remained dead and buried. The negatives outweigh the positives, by far, since a faint sense of nostalgia is really the only positive that makes sense. The trend was already welcome from the minute it became a trend.

  3. A few months back I saw a really awesome local post-punk band who I’d never heard of. They’d been touring and I was at their last stop so when I asked about something of theirs to buy and listen to, they had already sold off the few CDs they could afford to make. They’d also had a cassette run done a year before the tour but those were all bought off during the tour as well. When they showed me their empty merch case, I saw their cassette collection and, on the spot, offered to swap cassettes. I traded off some Philly post-hardcore and a local stoner doom album for a NY crust punk and a Californian psych rock group. It was really an awesome thing to get to do & I hope to continue the tradition next time I see them (or any local touring group carrying cassettes).

    That being said, I really only listen to cassettes when I’m in my ’95 Honda Accord EX (thus explaining my ownership of a high-end tape deck). There’s a few cassettes I have I’ll listen to at home (on an old JVC stereo from 2003) because I still haven’t ripped them to mp3 but I will sooner or later & then they’ll probably stay in the car. So while I agree that listening to cassettes at home is a fairly pointless act (barring the aesthetically pleasing match of format & genre ala crust or black metal), I think having a nice range of cassettes to listen to in the car is great. They’re actually less fragile than CDs, for one. Also, you can talk about how “awful” they sound but the Dolby Digital setting makes mine sound pretty crisp and honestly, when I’m cruising around with the windows down, I’m not in need of pristine audio parsing. I just want to hear the basslines, the percussion, the riffs, the vocals, etc. Which cassettes do fine with.

    So, in response, I say: nobody’s twisting your arm to buy these tapes. But don’t ruin it for those of us that are thrilled to see yet another unique, fun way to listen to music come back to life.

  4. I’m with Valley of Steel on this one. Cassettes were always horrible. Sound quality aside, they’re slightly less durable than wax cylinders. I still get a little grumpy thinking back to how many copies I had to buy of “Master of Puppets” as one after another got left in the sun one day and melted, or fell apart in the cassette player of my ’84 Jetta, leaving me to pull spaghetti out of it for half an hour while trying not to break the tape player itself. If people dig putting stuff out on tapes and vinyl, I’ve got no problem with that, as long as there’s also a modern format available. Otherwise you’re just pointlessly keeping people from supporting your music because of an over-commitment to some silly underground ethos.

    That said, I think it’s a problem that will take care of itself. When Cheap Trick made an 8-track version of their album in 2009-ish, I think mostly for giggles, and I remember reading they only found one manufacturing outfit that was still tooled up to make the things. I’d be surprised if cassette and cassette manufacturers will continue to make product based on this resurgence.

  5. The cassette popularity is in line with the “re”vival of vinyl (say that 5 times fast) I’ve got all these records that can be played nowhere but in my state of the art stereo. So what do us old-timers get for the go? You guessed it. Us old bangers where brought up on vinyl and cassettes, and old habits die hard…you can keep the twigs and cat blood, however. I’ll get my own.

  6. For the stuff it makes sense for – sure. If you’re not a major label band (or a major label) and can’t afford to do a 500 LP pressing of your latest raw black/death/doom release, then go for it. I do tape releases because I enjoy them, and they feel less “disposable” than some Kunaki-made CDr. And the $20 special edition tape thing is ridiculous. An extra couple of bucks for a printed patch or pouch like the Eight Bells CS release is cool; but if you’re charging LP prices for a cassette and not including a t-shirt or the like, you need to change what you’re smoking.

  7. First, I want to lay a little of the blame on me even knowing about (or buying) any modern metal cassettes at the feet of . . . THKD! Yes, the February 2012 Scratching the Surface was certainly one of the first introductions I had to the whole concept. I was completely out of metal for 20 years, then returned full force, and was absolutely blown away by what I thought of as this completely underground movement to create and release music solely for cassette.

    It was startlingly odd; it was anti-21st century, because the music couldn’t easily be transferred between people. I think the simple act of “hiding it” onto cassette was a revolt. Not a revolution, but certainly a statement of intimacy. “This is from me; I made this for you.” In the blurry digital swirl where there’s no real beginning or ending any more because of easy access to music (Ozzy alongside Dio alongside Ozzy, simultaneously forever and ever), it was a carved out exception. The very idea of locking the music down onto a cassette seemed special.

    Second, a caveat–I’ve worked on a couple of cassette releases, and have a big machine in the closet that can dub them off. It’s important to note that the cassette subculture isn’t limited to metal alone. It’s really big in the garage & punk world, which is where I was first exposed to it. The main release I worked on (for a Mississippi band) each had hand-sewn sleeves with a Polaroid tucked in, with each Polaroid having a bit of typewriting from my ancient Smith Corona.

    So we quadrupled down: putting music on a cassette, using a dead film, typewriting, and handsewing. We were trying to emphasize that this was a real thing, an artifact of our care and love. We were trying to make a little art to graft onto the already extant art of the songs. It wasn’t digital; it was “real.”

    So when I see that somebody has handcrafted a box or filled it with leaves and twigs–while that may not be for me, I certainly respect the act. I think it’s meant to instill an act of physical and emotional transformation into what some think of as freely transferable bits of data. For lack of any better term, it may be trying to instill a bit of romance to the act of transferring music between people, in the same way there is a crackle at opening the spine of a double gatefold album all those years ago. There’s not a lot of romance or engagement in mashing “buy now” through Bandcamp.

    We don’t have a lot of double gatefolds anymore, but maybe this is how we make those elaborate packages like in the old days. To that extent, I celebrate it, and support it, even if sparingly. I’ve got a few Rhinorcervs tapes and the great SVN-OKKLT compilation, but maybe that’s it for now.

    So I think there’s two major forces that matter to me: intimacy with the artist, and the aesthetic nature of the created artifact. The latter may be the most important to me, in part because of my age and history. I’m 38; I make fliers, posters, album art. All of these are archaic in our modern world, although all used to be essential (if sometimes invisible or ignored). But I love ‘em. I suspect intimacy may be the prime mover for some other people.

    All this being said, those acts of special transference or unique creation don’t apply in any way to a “major” label release. There’s no aesthetic value to me in buying a cassette when the release is freely available on cd, digital, and LP. There’s no particular intimacy with the artist when choosing a cassette off the rack when there’s a million other options. So neither of my two interests are met there.

    Good article as always, and if I have any criticism, it’s that I want you to post more! And perhaps revise the title a bit to reflect the deep debate here.

  8. If I really wanted to listen to cassettes, I’d have to dig out my old Walkman and put a couple AA batteries in it. No thanks. I’ve moved on.

    It’s annoying to find a new release that’s ONLY available on cassette, with the only digital download being a single track (I’m looking at you, Sjenovik).

  9. If you have cassette recording equipment that still works, and releasing straight to cassette, go for it. If you’re using digital equipment to record, and mastering digitally, then releasing it to cassette… Why are you releasing it on cassette? “Cuz I only want the elite to hear my music” is an argument that appears to be made by these “too underground for you” types. The cassette is an unreliable, time-wasting, aggravating format for recording. It has a low shelf life and quick to decay. Your music will not stand the test of time if released strictly to cassette. I lost a wealth of music (both self-recorded and purchased for personal collection) to faulty cassette recorders/ players. Fuck cassettes!!

  10. I don’t mind stuff being released on cassette. I actually like band demos when they’re on cassette as opposed to some CD-R they burnt right before the show that took no effort at all to make. I agree that charging more than $10 for a cassette that is available on every other format is stupid but if people are buying it you can’t blame the label for making money.

    And the guy who complained about digital versions only being one track, just download audacity and split it up yourself if it bothers you that much.

  11. Cassettes are a cool format but I won’t pay 10$ for one. My label still presses cassettes and we selling them for no more then 6$ sometimes even $3, and we press them using the best sounding cassettes the pressing plant offers. Major labels always fuck shit up for DIY underground labels. But when it all comes down to it is all about the music cheers.

  12. It’s a cool format, with little overall costs and it’s easy to spread between underground distros because traders just send covers and masters back and forth. It’s economically viable for a small local band to get 50-100 copies of their demo looking professional / underground for little overhead. It makes no sense for runs of stuff over 200 – 300 pcs.

    I think it’s a great format, with a great amount of flexibility and creativity afforded than a lot of other releases for the price they are. The people that don’t like them just don’t get to enjoy all the awesome stuff that only comes out on tapes.

    • Well that’s one way of looking at it.

      Another way is, I as a writer and potential promoter of a band’s music, do not personally own a working cassette player (and have not since about 1999). If someone sent me a cassette demo that was not available anywhere else (not even digital download), I wouldn’t feel sorry for my own inability to hear the music. I get sent dozens of demos and albums every month. I’d just move on to something more accessible.

  13. Pure stupidity.been buying tapes since 1991.dont like em dont buy em.any more than 6 bucks and a tapes not worth it.whats stupid is paying for mp3’s.wont ever do that.tapes and vinyl will outlast cds end of story.this article is an anti music whine fest.wah wah wah is all I heard.

  14. @Tom – I’m not familiar with Exitium, gonna have to check them out. You can get a Walkman for super cheap now, I picked one up at Radio Shack a few years back and think it cost me $9.00 if memory serves. I also recently inherited a Sony cassette deck. I totally agree that the downloads are a nice perk for cassette labels to include, since it’s not exactly convenient to listen to cassettes most of the time.

    @valleyofsteel – I think a big positive is cost… I’ve picked up some new cassettes for around $5 – $6 each and some old classics for as little as a quarter. Granted, CDs are getting cheaper as well. RE: your second comment, a cassette deck or walkman can be had for ridiculously cheap these days if you ever want to revisit those cassette demos/promos your tossed aside ;)

    @TEENAGE METHUSELAH – Thank you for sharing your experiences! It’s really cool to hear that people can still bond over something like tape trading. I’m not out to ruin cassettes for anyone… I like cassettes! I buy them, I listen to them, I write about them… But I can’t help but question the motives behind some of these cassette releases. I feel like maybe collectors and completists are being preyed upon here. I agree the no one is twisting anyone’s arm to buy them, but the people that do want them shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant prices for cassettes.

    @JustinC – I too am surprised that there are still cassette manufacturers. I’d be interest to know if they’ve actually seen a significant upswing in business, because I know that cassettes aren’t just becoming popular again the metal scene… punk and indie bands/labels are releasing them too.

    @natec666 – I’m with you on the twigs and cat blood. I wonder how many people still have cassette decks in their cars or lug around a Walkman?

    @fragilebranch – THANK YOU! Your remarks are on point.

    @GORJUS REX – Thank you for sharing regarding the hand-crafted aspect of all this. I will admit that there’s something to be said for that, and I do think it can be something really cool as long as the prices are kept reasonable. I understand that a lot of time and effort goes into some of these releases, shipping and materials costs are high, etc… but as I said in my remarks above, I can’t help but feel that in some cases collectors are being fleeced.

    @big_red01027 – I’ve noticed with most of these cassette-only releases that someone eventually rips them and puts them up for download, whether it be the band themselves or someone else. The Svn Okklt blog offers legit downloads of tons of cassette-only releases from a variety of sources, for instance.

    @Muerte Elmasperro – EXACTLY. I don’t hate cassettes, but I definitely agree w/ you re: digital recordings being released on tape. What’s the point?

    @Matt – I suppose that’s true… if people are actually willing to pay $10.00 or more for a cassette then I guess labels shouldn’t feel bad about charging those prices… though I can’t imagine who would be crazy enough to pay that much.

    @MND – Amen. Your label is doing it the right way.

    @Orion – All very good points. I do think they’re a great way for DIY bands/labels to get their stuff out there… but I think some of that is starting to get lost. As I said, plenty of labels are doing it right.

    @fitfordragoncon – I recently happened across a non metal label that’s putting shit out on 8-track and laser disc!

    @Hansel – You know I’m a big fan of what you’ve done with the Caligari releases! Your stuff is a great example of how cassettes should be done.

    @jesus- Pure retardation.been buying tapes since 1991?bitch please, ive had tapes since i was 5 years old.michael jackson – thriller and huey lewis and the news – sports were my favorites.kvlt as fuck.i do agree with you though that any more than 6 bucks for a tape isnt worth it.i’m pretty sure that was addressed in the article.anti music?why would i write about music for 10 years and counting if i was anti music?dont like it dont read it.how did you hear my article?did you read it aloud?i really really hope you did.

  15. I’m sorry maybe I missed something. What label is charging $10+ for a standard cassette release? That’s obviously the exception, not the rule.

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