Cassettes are coming back(and may the rituals follow suit)

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - October 16, 2015 - 10:00am

Today is the third annual Cassette Store Day in the US and the UK, where those little rectangle repositories of music, while not immediately rendered as cool as vinyl after being discarded by a world that had moved on to CDs and digital music, are now making a modest comeback. National Audio Co., the largest cassette manufacturing company in the US, reports that it sold 10 million units last year — that’s only three million units less than the much-ballyhooed vinyl. This week, indie rock band The Wrens released a cassette-only edition of their new songs, the latest among nearly 200 cassette releases so far this year by indie labels alone.

All of this makes very little sense. Even the existence of a “Cassette Store Day” seems like a sketch idea straight out of the comedy series Portlandia. It sounds like a satire on Record Store Day and the hipster movement’s general fetish for the old and impractical. For all its compactness and portability, cassettes do have an inferior sound quality compared to vinyl records and CDs. At least we can attribute the resurgence of vinyl to young people wanting to hear a fuller, uncompressed sound. This tape revival suspiciously seems like young people just wanting to finally own all those cute little cartridges they keep seeing on notebooks, T-shirts and desktop wallpapers.

Cassette tapes look cool now. This is weird, especially to people who grew up in a world where cassettes were as prosaic as pencils and Tupperware containers. Everyone used to own stacks of them — your school bus driver, your baduy classmate who listened to Bon Jovi, your little sister. But now the cassette has apparently gone the way of typewriters and rotary phones — commonplace objects imbued with a sense of mystery by a world that has made them obsolete.

Beyond superficial aesthetics

If this is the new generation’s relationship with cassettes, then I hope they see beyond the superficial aesthetics and discover in them the small pleasures they encase. The wonderful clicking noises they make when you take them out and put them in the cassette player. The intimate familiarity it takes to rewind or forward precisely to the start of a song and the unrivalled satisfaction you feel once you nail it. The usefulness of that skill applied perfectly to the elaborate process of putting together mixtapes. The joy of rewinding tapes through pencils. The way the constant stopping and playing and rewinding requires you to be really close to the speakers, where you feel as if the singer’s singing only to you.

I don’t mind the new generation developing a weird fetish for cassettes. In fact, this is one trend that I do wish gets picked up in our country, where vinyl record stores have been as rare as the people who can afford vinyl records. Cassettes are way cheaper and a renewed interest in them locally could lead to another welcome revival: that of music stores themselves.

One popular explanation for this unlikely cassette comeback is the collective yearning for a physical attachment to musical products that have become increasingly abstract. This isn’t a new argument and is, in fact, a mere reiteration of the reasons used to explain vinyl’s rebirth. But the creation of a Record Store Day and the more recent Cassette Store Day hint at another kind of yearning, more for a place rather than a physical object. After all, the digital revolution didn’t just make music more abstract, it has displaced it as well.

Going to stores

Going to stores used to be an integral part of music consumption. In the ‘90s, places like Tower Records in Glorietta, CD Warehouse in the old Greenbelt basement and Groove Nation in Amorsolo, Makati were more than just places to buy music. They were cathedrals. Groove Nation, in particular, with its poster-filled walls oozing with cool, was a place built for music worship. It was basically just a tiny storage room that smelled of shipped plastic but it remains memorable for the music booming from its walls and its impressive collection of CDs, vinyl and cassette tapes. I can still remember Toti Dalmacion, now owner of indie label Terno Recordings, playing Brick Supply from behind the counter, rooting the music to his small, intimate space forever.

The physical connection we have lost in the digital age goes beyond that of the tape and the player. We have also been robbed of the joy in sifting through titles in record stores, gasping for every album we’re delighted to find, and cursing ourselves for not having enough money. Lost in the convenience of pressing a virtual button to stream the latest music is the giddiness of buying a tape or a CD, then taking it home, wrapped in the glorious tease of the long wait. I miss that. Everything comes too easy now and nothing is earned. Because it was never about paying for music: it was always about the ritual.

A revival of cassette tapes, that cheapest of (non-pirated) playing formats, may finally open our shores up to a revival of record stores. And for this reason alone, we must welcome this strange, overtly hipster fad and wish it continued success. May it resurrect, not only the physical products, but also the habits and rituals that made them so worthwhile.

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Tweet the author @ColonialMental.

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