I’m pretty obsessed with contemporary cassette culture. Over the last few years, countless young and ambitious efforts have adopted the format – sculpting one of the most vibrant contexts of new music I’ve encountered, yet it seems – caught by the object itself (or simply not having a tape deck), people often miss what makes it so special.
It feels reductive to mention the all mighty dollar – but it counts, and is generally downplayed in narrative of seminal music. Art is supposed to come first – and it does, but particularly for those of us who have shuffled through a frustrating flux in formats during the last three decades, it has played a significant role. Though everyone has their preferences and reasons, a largely unspoken factor which contributed to the vinyl revival we are currently witnessing, is that for many years (the 90’s and the first half of the 2000’s) LPs were the cheapest way to buy music. You could get more bang for your buck, and importantly, take more risks through what you bought. For the price of a bagel and a cup of coffee, you could buy a second hand album which might change your life (I often went hungry during my 20’s because of this rational) – while a new CD would be roughly five times the cost. As vinyl has become more collectible, increasingly playing a role in the larger image of the record industry, many of these elemental factors – cost, risk, and discovery – the crucial foundations of so many love affairs, are being lost. When only a few short years ago the average cost of a new LP was between $10 and $15, now they rarely fall below $20, and regularly stretch past $30. It’s harder and harder to encourage new listeners to explore unfamiliar music (let alone buy it). As a result, many are missing out on experiences that most of us benefited from – taking risks – living with and learning from adventurous music that you may not immediately appreciate or understand.
When cassette labels started to reemerge within the darker corners of the underground, I was slightly reticent. As objects, they tapped nostalgia – the joy I had felt as a teenager when I had accumulated enough of my allowance ($2 a week) to take one home. I had already settled on LPs as my preferred format, and was saddled with thousands of CDs that I rarely approached. Did I really need another format cluttering up my life? I avoided it as long as I could, but it was hard to ignore how much interesting and adventurous music was appearing on tape. The dams were bound to break.
There is no question that cassettes remain the most marginalized of all formats. Few people make them. Few buy them. Edition numbers are low – anywhere from a handful to a few hundred. There’s little money to be made. They are a labor of faith and love, occupying a tiny corner of the recording industry – but one of tremendous importance. In many cases, they are a mirror of better ideals – offering lessons from which we can all learn.
One of my major concerns – the current running below much of what I write, is the survival and sustainability of the independent music industry and the communities which surround it. Nothing means more to me than this context of sound. Nothing has given me so much. I speak to people who run labels and my readers almost daily. When I talk to labels, particularly those who focus their efforts on vinyl, they often mention how hard it is to survive – that they are just scrapping by. Some even wonder if they should throw in the towel. Many are one person operations, where the hope is to simply break even – labors of love. Most work a second job to prop up the economics of their passion. When I speak to readers, I often hear how much they want to buy the records I write about, but regularly find their costs prohibitive – and thus pass them by. Something isn’t working. It doesn’t line up. Some of it certainly relates to larger global economic concerns – shrinking wages against growing costs, but given the radical variance in the retail cost of LPs, I’m not convinced that’s all there is. I’ve heard that pressing plants have increased prices in recent years – this may or may not be where it begins, trickling down from there.
Though deeply suspicious of Capitalism and subsequent materialistic impulses, I advocate buying music and allowing it to take up space in our lives. As the landscape has radically changed over the last few decades, I’ve watched many labels and artists attempt to adapt to these shifts in their efforts to survive. Though evolution is necessary, I also believe that art, with those who produce and distribute it, should lead rather than follow – that they should define the landscape rather than conform to it.
A great many of the challenges currently facing the independent record market come down to perception, coupled with supply and demand. Speaking in broad cultural terms, the vast majority of listeners – faced with an endless sea of free streams and MP3s, have lost an understanding of the value that grows from investing in music – buying and living with its object over time. As a result, most people access music in ways that they don’t have to pay for, or only pay a nominal fee, both amounting to less financial support for labels and artists (independent and major alike) – ultimately making it nearly impossible for them to survive. With less demand, independent labels are forced to produce lower runs (sometimes as low as 200, but usually between 500 and 1000), subsequently yielding more challenging profit margins (the more records you press, the less each unit costs). Because production costs can generally be expected to be reflected proportionately within the retail cost of an LPs, prices have climbed and fewer people are able to afford them – forcing the cycle to continue. In my view, the potential resolution comes from both sides. We must find a way to rekindle a wide spread understanding of the value in investing in music – to encourage people to buy it, while labels need to find a way to make their releases more financially accessible – allowing more people to afford them, subsequently increasing demand and making production more profitable.
Over the last couple of years, while attempting to bend my thoughts to the problems that recorded music currently faces (largely economic) – to seek strategies for its long term sustainability and survival, I have sometimes ruffled feathers. There were those who interpreted my words as attacks on their beliefs or efforts. This was never the intent. I have nothing but love and respect for anyone who attempts to contribute to this world. I am simply looking for ways for everyone to survive – to help selling music in physical formats sustainable and economically viable forever. Some of my considerations carry hard truths. By lowering costs and potentially abandoning certain formats or business strategies (which I think is necessary), things may have to get harder in order to make them better.
Structurally, my thoughts contend with two distinct forums. The psychology associated with an object – how we related to the idea of buying music, specifically particular formats, and basic economics. Vinyl, CDs, tapes, MP3s, and streaming all carry distinct cultural, historical, and experiential meanings to those who interact with them, particularly when addressing generational and economic paradigms – buying music means something different to someone who is middle aged against someone who is a teenager, as it does for someone who is middle class against someone who is struggling economically. In each case, the subsequent meanings are modulated by personal perception and experience with each respective format. Setting aside the age old arguments about fidelity and sustainability, I accept that each format – vinyl, CDs, tapes, MP3s, are all reasonable and functional means to distribute and experience music. I’m not interested in which one is better. There are viable arguments for each. What I am interested in, is why and when people do (or don’t) buy them.
I believe that buying music in physical formats and living with it over time – allowing to to take up space our lives, where it demands attention and return listening, has innumerable benefits for both sides of a musical context – those who make, produce and distribute it (artists, labels, shops), and those who experience it. When we invest in music, it sustains an economy that enables more great art to be made, but it equally changes the way we relate to it and value it. By making a sacrifice – choosing to offer a proportion of our personal economy to it, we commit to a conscious relationship with that thing. We choose it, place value in it, and begin a personal and unmediated relationship with it. When it exists physically in our lives, it reminds us to return to it – nagging at us – even when we may not understand or like what we hear. There is little question that great art changes with us over time, and changes us. This is what makes it so fundamentally important – but this phenomena can not be taken for granted. We have to encourage it to assert itself for its rewards to be realized. This is why part of an essential experience which is being lost, when people choose not to buy music – when it fails to have a presence in their lives. It risks transforming organized sound into static and temporary experience, while its hidden values are lost.
The landscape of recorded music has radically changed over the last few decades – often at a dizzying pace. These shifts have brought new economic challenges for those who produce music. Insiders try and understand them to stay abreast – strategizing ways for survival, attempting to adapt to what is perceived as changing consumer demand, but rarely ask the right questions, and thus have yet to offer a viable resolve. The answers seem elusive, but they’re not. The industry simply doesn’t understand its public – what drives them, is unwilling to look in the mirror, and is incapable of stepping outside of the standard 20th century industrial narrative – where the consumer dictates demand, which is turn met with a supply, and where once demand is embedded, the supply can be manipulated to extract greater profits. Downloading and streaming turned that on its head – as too has the reemergence of vinyl and the cassette.
To understand, and subsequently survive the current evolutionary context of recorded music, we have to forget everything we know. The terms have entirely changed. We have to begin again. The first century of the commercial recording industry (1877 – 1980) was fairly simple. Though formats (per-standardized discs, 78, 45, LP) shifted slightly, and alternate ways of buying music became available with the advent of prerecorded tape in the mid-1950’s, the record sustained itself as the dominant media. Consistency, quality, and trust were key. If you have a turntable with variable speeds, and the right needle, you can still play the discs produced at the end of the 19th century. For most of its life, the recording industry had very little understanding of what dictated consumer desire. They provided a good product at a fair price and let the listeners do the rest – meeting the demand with supply. With expected ebbs and flows, this was an extremely profitable practice until 1973 – when circumstances planted the initial seeds for the landscape we witness today. Prior to that, there was little reason to mess with a good thing.
In 1973, members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries instigated an oil embargo in response to the United States’ support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This gave way to a severe global economic crisis. Despite widespread hardship, sales numbers were not effected within the recording industry – surprisingly, they continued to grown. Profits however, began to shrink – largely the result of radically rising costs in raw vinyl and plastics. The industry needed a way to cut costs to sustain growth. Initially this came in the form of low weight vinyl releases from the middle 70’s on (something every record collector has encountered) – but also roughly corresponds with the first commercial efforts to develop a new format to replace the LP completely. These began at Phillips in 1974. The economic imperative was again exasperated by a second oil crisis in 1979, following the deposement of the Shah of Iran – the same year Phillips and Sony jointly produced the first prototypes of the CD. If you look at the data (the above graph is gross income, not adjusted), the slow shift toward the current paradigm – one defined by the competition of multiple formats within the record industry, begins during the early 80’s – first in 1980, corresponding with the emergence of the Walkman into US and UK markets, and then again in 1982 when Phillips and Sony introduced the Compact Disc. Though these two factors came to sculpt the priorities or market, the effect of the Walkman was happenstance (despite being introduced by Sony). No one expected it to have the long lasting effected it did – forcing a new demand upon the industry – convenience and mobility. What the CD introduced was another thing all together.
Until the early 80’s, prerecorded tape existed in the market to meet a slim niche demand – people who had tape recorders that allowed for playback, and later to accommodate the 8-tracks and tape decks which began to appear in cars. The Walkman (and subsequently the “boom box”), adopted passionately by teenagers, changed everything. It implanted a desire for music to be constantly mobile. The tape industry ballooned. Its legacies continued through the era of the CD, and now remain with the MP3. Cassettes came with further advantages. Particularly compared to CDs, which were extremely expensive when they first appeared, they were cheap, durable, and when bought blank, allowed for easy “bootlegging” – enabling exploration of music at a scope beyond a standard teenage economy – to acquire it for free. Though the recording industry freaked out about home taping – illustrated by the absurd Home Taping is Killing Music campaign, people loved and continued to buy them. If anything, the data implies that cassettes inspired people to buy more music than previous eras. They were seen to be part of a fair and accessible economy.
The success of the cassette in the 80’s and 90’s market offers a number of significant insights. It proves that a context which allows for music to be acquired for free, does not mean that people will not also buy it. If the relationship is cultivated in the proper way, they may in fact buy more than they otherwise might have. As an object, the cassette offered a number of other important features, all of which remain relevant today. It was relatively inexpensive – meaning that it could be accommodated by a teenage economy – planting the seeds for a lifelong relationship with music, and thus a sustainable buying public. It was mobile. It was physical, which encouraged return listening and a developmental relationship with an art form, and it allowed people to explore and take risks in their listening habits. They also had a low production cost and were extremely profitable to produce. On nearly all counts, they were advantageous for consumers and producers alike.
Unlike the cassette, whose place in the market was largely the result of consumer demand, the Compact Disc entered the world on cynical terms. It was forced on music buyers – the realization of the legacy begun by a threat on profits during the 1970’s oil crisis – allowed to spin radically out of control. It was marketed as a superior product – while the fact that it was less sustainable than vinyl – suffering a progressive degradation in fidelity and a phenomena called disc rot, was widely know early on. The primary motive for the existence of the CD was its low production costs and inflated profits. They were marketed with the illusion of superiority – something which was use to rationalize their radically inflated prices – generally double the cost of an LP or cassette when they entered the market. This also came with the added advantage of encouraging an entire generation of listeners to replace perfectly functional albums which they already owned – duping them into buying the industry’s products twice. The industry’s betrayal of consumer trust – that the CD represented an unfair economic exchange – knowingly pursued in bad faith, coupled with the fact that the object felt cheap and didn’t inspire the same attachment and love that LPs and cassettes had, ultimately led to the context we are facing today.
During the 90’s, the era which the CD came to dominate the landscape, the major label music industry ballooned to a grotesque scale. It became a greedy beast – rarely paying or treating its artists well, while it regarded listeners with disdain. It didn’t grow because it produced better music, supported great art, made a superior product, or because more people bought music than other eras. It was because of the massive profits enabled by the low production costs of the CD and their ridiculously inflated prices – something which was widely know and complained about by consumers at the time. It is really that surprising that, when given the option to acquire music in a different and cheaper way, people turned their backs? Many record executives have since cited these reasons as the undoing of the industry – admitting that they were blind, greedy, and assuming that the system would never fail. In a way you can’t blame them. We all love music. Given no alternative, we went along with it and bought as much as we could.
It’s important to note that the CD did enable many wonderful things. They’re a fantastic housing for many efforts – particularly those of extended duration and particular dynamics. Countless independent labels were founded and able to contribute incredible music because of their low production costs – this continues today. Most of these efforts represented an antidote to major label industry’s practices – favoring great art over profit, paying their artists fairly, and often selling CDs at a more reasonable cost. The mark up was still high – without in-house production plants, the indie market payed significantly higher costs, but the right people where usually seeing the money. Many of these labels – again, who wouldn’t have existed without the CD, established a better model for how to exist within contexts of sound. It wasn’t all bad. Unfortunately, in the hands of the major label industry, the damage was already done.
According to the basic laws of economics, the CD should have cut the consumer cost of music. They are extremely cheap and fast to produce. They are smaller and lighter than LPs, significantly cutting transportation expenses. Rather than market them as a way to make music more accessible and affordable – to pass on some of the savings, the music industry vastly inflated prices, employing them as a mechanism to extract greater profits from fans. The scales were bound to tip. Eventually my generation of listeners, enabled by new technologies or encouraged to return to older formats, took back the power. Some of us stopped buying them, or slowed our pace. Many uploaded their CD collections onto computers (often sharing the files freely online). Some stuck them in closets to gather dust or hid them away in binders, while others just threw them away. Why clutter your world with something that has little materiel quality or physical appeal – especially when whatever music you don’t own, can be download as mp3s for free? This question haunts us today.
There’s an unavoidable catch 22. My generation – those of us in our late 30’s and early 40’s, grew up believing in the importance of buying music. This is something that most of us still maintain. We represent the largest proportion of those currently starting new labels, as well as one of the most substantial music buying publics. When we were younger, we also began the movement which pulled the rug out from under the record industry as a sustainable business.
By the end of the 90’s, many serious music fans had begun to drift away from the CD. It wasn’t political. It wasn’t nascent analog fetishism or nostalgia. It was economic. Second hand LPs where a fraction of the price. We could explore countless worlds of music at very little cost. This is why so many of us delved so heavily into the past. It was all we could afford to do. As we began to turn these records over in our hands – falling into the ritual of the needle drop and the flip, and the unavoidable fact that a trashed record could still sound great, while a scratched CD would skip into oblivion, we began to recognize what had been lost – the multidimensional and sustainable experience which had been taken by the industry, when they saddled us with the CD.
By then, most of us had pretty substantial CD collections. I estimate I spent around $75,000 dollars on the format, across the years that it dominated the market. Despite loving the music they contained, because of the experience that vinyl offered – the beauty of its object, its sustainability and warmth, many of us began to feel that we had been ripped off by the CD. When placed next to an LP, it was hard not to regard it with the same kind of cynicism which had brought it into our lives. It felt cheap and disposable. We came to mirror the industry’s lack of investment in the object – seeing them as consumer junk. First they ended up in unprotected stacks on tables, then on car floors. Though not entirely conscious, we were acting out against them. The process of devaluing the object of music had begun. The moment the options became available, many of us began ripping countless spindles of CD-Rs, and then subsequently downloaded everything that was available online. It was time to take something back – to get our revenge – to extract some of the economy which had been unfairly gained at our expense.
What we began as an intuitive response – a backlash against the betrayal we felt, spiraled out of control. When we began the process of devaluing the object of music, we didn’t realize that the value judgment we levied against the CD, would become dissociated and define the entire musical landscape. My generation quickly reset and found a new equilibrium. Most of us continued to buy music at a reasonable pace. Our enthusiasm for the LP began a new market. This eventually led to the current vinyl revival. Many of us started labels, issuing an incredible stream of music into the world – leaving the CD behind. Unfortunately, the struggles that many of these labels now face – those I mentioned at the outset of this piece, are the result of a momentum we started in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Our actions haunt us. In this light, the damage may be our responsibility to repair. We must find a way to give value back to the object once again.
When examining the current context of recorded sound, there is little question that digital downloads and streaming account for the majority of listening habits. Within this spectrum interaction, there are a number of factors to consider. While digital downloads can be profitable and certainly have persuasive advantages for listeners – many of which were initially offered by the cassette, sales are slipping across the industry. Most downloads are still acquired for free, while listeners are increasingly turning to streaming sites where they have endless choice for little or no cost. This tells us something of crucial importance. If the digital context is made up of three basic elements – free downloads, paid downloads, and streaming, but paid download sales are slipping, it indicates that, even when they are of better quality, they are not persuasive enough to inspire growth. When offered an option, affordability tips the scales. This is very different than what happened with the cassette. It was an object which consumer could comfortably rationalize buying – offering a fair exchange of economy. Where it not, sales would have slipped in favor of blank tapes. They didn’t. Both markets ballooned – offering important features for younger listeners, which drew them away from the LP. A consumer needs something tangible and persuasive to change their practices. This clearly isn’t happening in the purely digital context, where the only distinguishable and persuasive element is cost.
Something I hear regularly from friends in their 30’s and 40’s, especially since the emergence of Bandcamp, is the fact that they are increasingly buying digital downloads. They generally cite their reasons for this as one of the following – it’s the only way a given release is available, it’s cheaper than a physical release, they are trying to acquire fewer objects, or are concerned about the environmental impact of the recording industry (this rational, though reasonable and well-intentioned, fails to acknowledge the massive carbon footprint of servers). It raises the final element of the ticking time bomb in the record industry’s midst. When you examine generational dynamics of who buys digital downloads, there are strong indications that, particularly within the independent market, the majority are over the age of 30 – individuals who grew up in an era where buying music was an important part of an individualized experience with it. This implies that they transfer the value systems of physical media, and former paradigms of music consumption, onto digital files. There are equally strong indications that this age bracket accounts for the bulk of the current vinyl revival, as well as most CD sales. When faced this data, we must address the fact that we need to look beyond our own generational paradigm. We’re ignoring what’s coming. If we want to see the independent recording industry to survive, we must cultivate new listeners who are willing to pay for music – those who will sustain it into the future. Free digital downloads and streaming aren’t going anywhere, and this isn’t happening within the context they are part of. We need a new strategy.
When I talk to younger music fans – something I regularly try to do, I’ve encountered (what I feel to be) a completely unfamiliar idea about how one acquires music. Most Millennials, with those younger, do not understand why you would buy it at all. They have grown up in a reality defined by an endless sea of free music – the context that my generation began when they started to upload their CDs online. They think of digital media in a similar way to how radio was regarded in the past – it’s free and there – a fair exchange for loss of choice and control. Most have never interacted with physical media with a meaningful way. CDs are hard to love as objects, particularly when divorced from the context in which they entered. They are still expensive by comparative standards, and will likely be dumped into a itunes anyway. They are superfluous as objects against the demands placed upon them by young listeners. It seems unlikely, next to the option of a phone or ipod, that we’re going back to the era of CD binders and the discman. I completely understand why few can be persuaded to buy them. Free downloads and paid downloads are indistinguishable to most ears when heard on cheap headphones or computer speakers – which they most often are. Accepting this, I can understand why younger listeners would prefer to download low quality rips for free. They don’t have much money, and neither did we when we were their age (most of us still don’t). The reason we started buying LPs, is the same reason they download for free – a limited economy, and the best available bang for your buck. Streaming sites offer the same auditory experience, but offer endless choice for free or a very low fee. You have to ask, is their really a persuasive argument being had? Who can blame them for thinking it’s not worth buying music, or paying as little as possible for it when they do? There is nothing to persuade them to do otherwise.
The logic applied to paid for downloads – the basic parameters of that context, have been formed by a presumption of consumer desire. When people started to listen to music on ipods, computers, and phones, the industry assumed that this was the result of a desire and demand by the consumer, and set out to adapt and establish a market to capitalize on it. Given that download sales are a shrinking, it seems fair to assume that the logic is flawed – something has been missed – the elements which encourage people to value music in a way that rationalizes a personal sacrifice for it. In other words, given that people have been historically willing participate with music in such a way, there must be a failure to offer them what they actually want. The fact that technology has changed the terms, does not mean that basic human desire and needs have shifted. Paid for downloads are a default – a band-aid – a flawed attempt to adapt, which in all probability is not a sustainable model for the future of the record industry. It can not be assumed that the value system of one generation will be the same as the next – especially is there is nothing present to instill them.
This finally returns us to the start. If we briefly examine the ground we have just covered, we have a context of music which is defined by a number of distinct formats – all carrying specific attributes. The digital download – something which appears to be unsustainable as a paid for commodity. Streaming – which offers little financial support for those who produce music. CDs – the market for which is shrinking and propped up by an older generation of listeners who will likely buy less as time passes, while they are redundant or unpersuasive for the demands of younger listeners. Vinyl – which has shown immense growth and promise in recent years but is cost prohibitive for both producers and listeners, and cassettes – which we have yet to fully explore. When dealing with a context which offers choice, most corporate industries will attempt to steer consumers toward the option which will allow them to maximize profits. This is why the record industry has been so resistant to relinquish the CD, and equally why they are attempting to cash in on streaming and downloads sales. Because no form of digital media appears to be more persuasive than the next for younger listeners, and is thus far impossible to fully control – it can always be found for free, it seems logical to presume that they answers for the sustainability of recorded music must be found beyond the digital realm.
For older listeners, the idea that buying music offers experiences outside the simple act of hearing, is fairly accepted. Most people over 30 developed a sense of attachment and love for the object of itself when they were younger – particularly for the LP, which was met by a number of developmental and multidimensional rewards. What is interesting, is that we currently have three generational paradigms concerning vinyl. Those who grew up with it being the ubiquitous format, those of us who came to it because it was a cheap way to explore music, and those who have come to it since its revival. Fascinatingly, while all three paradigms brought listeners to vinyl for very different reasons, the way it inspires love is fairly universal. As a result, it is the only format which has shown substantial growth within younger markets. Within a generation that has grown up with free downloads, purchasing an LP may be the first instance where a substantial number have been paid for music at all.
If we look over the various success stories within the history of the recording industry – what vinyl offered the listener during the decades that it dominated the market, the success, attributes, and lessons of the cassette during the 80’s and 90’s, the reasons my generation returned to vinyl, what physical media offers as a multidimensional experiences, and the lessons embedded within the vinyl revival, we can learn a great deal. The past may hold much of what we need to sculpt a more sustainable future for recorded music.
When observed within a younger market, the vinyl revival offers a very significant insight. Like the context of the cassette in the 80’s and 90’s, it proves that even when music can be acquired for free, people will also pay for it. You simply have offer them something persuasive enough for them to do so – something which has a value or desired attribute not present in another format. People never stopped dubbing cassettes, as they will likely never stop downloading or acquiring digital music for free. Importantly, in the case of tapes, the love for music that was cultivated by the scope of exploration they enabled (for free), encouraged listeners to buy more. This implies that, in the case of a context defined by digital music, when a listener chooses not to buy music – downloading it for free, the fault is not theirs, it is the industry’s for failing to offer them something accessible and persuasive enough to do otherwise, or to proceed toward after the initial relationship is formed. Thus far, the only thing which has proven successful on this count, is the LP.
Digital music should be seen as similar to the blank tape. Its presence, though lacking some of the added benefits of physical media, if found within a reasonable economy of music and used properly, has the potential of encouraging people to buy more music rather than less. In order for it to do this, it must never be sold. It should be highlighted for what it is – a way of experiencing music which is deficient compared to the rest – akin to a movie trailer. It gives you enough of a hint to draw you in, but doesn’t provide the full experience. Remember we are not just talking about music, we are talking about a commodity which is bought and sold – one which has far more potential than those within the auditory realms. If the industry where to no longer market downloads as a totality (which they aren’t), or impose them on the listener as viable economic exchange – which most young listeners already refuse to accept, it will encourage listeners to understand what makes physical media so special, happily buy it and likely buy more. Downloads should be a gateway, not an endpoint. The problem is not digital media, it is the fact that most young people do not view it to be a fair exchange of economy. We have to understand it outside of a post 30 generational paradigm. Attempting to sell it, is getting in the way of the potential and scope of growth in more sustainable areas of the market.
Vinyl has always inspired love. It is a beautiful object which has a great deal of cultural (and in many cases, personal) meaning attached to it. It feels invested in and cared for, and inspires the same in return. Even when expensive, it feels like a fair exchange of economy – as long as you can actually afford it. It is persuasive. Though the market has grown, entering into untapped areas occupied by younger listeners – many of whom have previously unwilling to buy music, a substantial growth has been inhibited by high cost. At the moment, it is regarded by many as a luxury item. Given that I believe the LP is the best way to have a complete and multidimensional experience with music, I also believe it should never be allowed to be an exclusive object. Everyone should be allowed to experience its wonders. Unfortunately, within the given context, this is nearly impossible to achieve. They are too expensive to produce in low runs to make them affordable to all, and the demand is not high enough to change that. The question then is becomes how to increase demand – to encourage a new generation to place their faith in buying music, so that the market can grow to a point where it is financially accessible to all listeners, as well as profitable and sustainable for those who produce it.
Physical media is multidimensional. It is beautiful, tactile, and takes up space in our lives – encouraging return listening and developmental experience. Because of this, it changes over time, and changes us – activating what makes art so important. The appreciation which grows from these experiences, founds love affairs which encourages people to buy more – to embark on further rewarding experiences and grow with them. As both commodity and an experience, when part of fair economy, music inspires a system of values which naturally sustains the industry and helps it grow. When the music industry fails to offer these things, audience turn their backs, and the profitability of selling music disappears – which is what has happened. Since the advent of the CD, and across the era of the digital download, the music industry has tried to offer less for more, and this has failed. The fan rebelled and everything has collapsed. We must instigate a change – lead rather than follow – define the landscape rather than conform to it – offer more for less, allowing the fans to swell and return.
This is no small thing – restoring widespread public perception to the wonders and importance of living with the object of music, but it’s necessary for our survival. Great art needs finical support, so it may continue to be made. It is also worth drawing attention to the fact that what I am suggesting is only for the independent market – major labels and their audiences may do what they will. They’re of little concern to me. The independent market has always drawn on the idea of community, interaction, and collective support. It is small and relatively manageable, sustaining and drawing new audiences through its ethics, and the quality of what it does. If applied to the broad context of recorded music, most of my ideas are impractical, but within the independent world they are possible. In fact, my thinking largely draw on things that are already happening organically within this context of sound – they simply need attention in order to be capitalized on and reach their full potential.
If we accept that the sale of all digital media – CDs, downloads, and streaming, do not represent a financially sustainable future for the independent music industry, then we are currently left with two options – vinyl and tapes. These two formats presently represent two economic polarities within the market – one cheap but rarely purchased, and the other growing, but inhibited by cost. We should see them as part of the same equation – coupled with free digital downloads on the same gradient scale – working together to build a new paradigm of the recorded music (more or less) from scratch. MP3s are unbeatable for the mobility and convenience that most consumers now desire. They aren’t going anywhere. We shouldn’t fight them – doing so would be the same as the major label campaign from the 80’s mentioned earlier – Home Taping is Killing Music. It certainly didn’t work them, nor did it inspire love. It is even less likely to do either now. Like blank tapes managed, we need to find a way for them to encourage people to buy the physical object music, rather than allow it to be its replacement. This is why download cards included in tapes and LPs are such a great idea. It makes digital music free, gives the buyer part of the experience they feel is necessary (mobility and convenience) but also engages them in a fair economic exchange – giving them an object to develop and relationship with – something which has historically encouraged listeners to buy more music. Importantly, most cassettes labels offer both the cassette and download for less than many labels sell a download on its own. They are offering the listener as much as they possibly can, for the lowest possible price. This is exactly how you instill trust and grow an audience. It’s a luxury that the format affords, and why it is crucial component in encouraging growth in the larger market.
There are a number of reasons cassette labels are important in the contemporary sonic landscape, and few of them have to do with the music or the character of the format itself. It comes down to dollars and cents. Tapes are cheap to produce. Their low production cost is usually reflected in what the buyer pays. Rather than the standard model of the recording industry, cassette culture seems to take many of its cues from the world of fine art – where artist expect to labor in their studios for years without reward – making for the sake of it – because it needs to be. The basic structural economy of tapes should be acknowledged on two fronts. Firstly, unlike vinyl which has prohibitive production costs, labels can produce a release with almost no overhead. This allows them to effectively “write off” their investment from the outset. It is very easy for these labels to survive. They are conceived under a different business model. Unlike most CD labels where the production cost is roughly the same, cassette labels almost always pass on the savings to the consumer – keeping costs incredibly low – the average cost of a CD is still around $15, where a cassette usually runs on the lower end of the spectrum between $5 and $10. For them the art, and its being heard, is the most important thing. They want it to reach people’s hands, rather than be hobbled with unpersuasive or inhibitive cost. Thus the economy of cassettes, as it has been set internally – enabled by low production costs, benefits both label and listener – instilling interdependency and trust.
The comparison to cassette culture and the world of fine art goes much further than a reasonably selfless economy. The beauty and care invested in the design and packaging is impossible to ignore. Many labels produce releases that appear to be art editions, rather than purely musical works. Even those who are slightly more conventional, almost always display great design. Once again, cassette labels offer the consumer more for less. Cassettes feel special. They remind us of the importance of the object of music in our lives – the many potentials it has to give. Tapes easily present themselves as an economic exchange where the buyer gains far more than they sacrifice in monetary terms. They activate consumer faith. Because they often feel so special as objects, people more willingly invite them into their lives – starting the process of countless love affairs which can only grow.
Cassettes now represent the same cultural position that second hand discarded LPs did fifteen or twenty years ago – when my generation began to buy them. They are a cheap way to buy music in a beautiful format. As many of us found out, that’s only the beginning. Once taking up space in your life, they offer countless rewards and a lifetime of love – they give and give and inspire you to buy more. Had I not had the opportunity to buy amazing records for a few dollars in the beginning, I would never be willing to spend $30 on a new record now. I expect the same is roughly true for everyone in my generation – those who are largely propping up the current vinyl market. It seems fair to presume that the same might apply for a younger generation. Most lasting relationships with music begin during the teens and twenties – when listeners have a very limited economy. Cost is major factor. It either opens or shuts the door for the formation of a lifelong relationship and appreciation for music. Within this generational paradigm, against the current character of the independent recording industry, it seems like the best available means to begin this process is the tape. They can offer easy economic entry and access, and can likely help form the foundations for a lifelong appreciation for the value of physical media, among a generation which can afford little else. If that relationship is meaningful, it is sustainable. Like ours became, when the younger generation’s economies become more stable, with a faith and love for the object of music instilled, they may also enter the world of the LP – expanding demand and helping it become a more economically viable format. In this light, the cassette holds the potential to widespread growth.
The economy activated by tapes strays into other important realms. It enables unmitigated risk – something which is harder to rationalize within the current economy of the LP – where if a record fails to sell, it could spell doom. Cassette culture is overflowing with adventurous music that, were sales a major concern, would otherwise never get released. This might be the wildest corners of the underground, important music for which there is only a slim demand, or idiosyncratic explorations that stand outside of an artist’s larger body of work. As objects, they offer voice to music which rarely finds one – one usually inhibited by rational economics. As such, we can equally presume that their existence and context must encourage artists to experiment and take (or release) risks that they otherwise might not – something of crucial impotence within the creative fields.
Risk benefits the listener as much as those who produce and distribute music. An important part of personal growth in the arts, is engaging with things that you may not immediately understand or like – “working at it”. This process is activated by many components. Both the label and artists’ willingness to take a risk, but also the listener’s – economics plays a hand here too. In my early teens I bought the late records of Black Flag. I didn’t like or understand what I heard. They were gross, grinding, and sludgy – a far cry from what had drawn me to their earlier efforts. Because I had invested in them – spent precious money, I forced myself to listen to them over and over. They changed my life. The effects still ripple through my world. The same was true when the process repeated with my first encounter with John Cage, Scott Walker’s early work, and countless others. Had economics inhibited those albums from being made, my life would have less worth. Had economics prohibited me from buying them, the same would be true. Had I not invested in them, and had they not taken up space in my life, nagging at me to return, the same would also be true. This simple process – being able to afford an album that you may not like, the risks taken by artist, label, and listener alike, and the benefits of allowing music to take up space in your life, points to countless dimension of why the object of music is so important – something now most easily activated by the context of the cassette.
We live in an era of recorded music which suffers from errors made in the past. The web of consequences is nearly impossible to untangle. I don’t pretend to have the answers, only observation and suggestion. Though parts of the independent music industry show growth, especially those related to vinyl, there are equally strong indications that this growth, and thus the larger market, is unsustainable. Nearly everyone is struggling – caught in the cycle of unprofitable low pressing runs. Trying to offer more, but getting little in return. What many fail to recognized, is this already difficult industry is propped up by an older generation who will not be there forever, while new potential listeners are barred by prohibited costs and the illusion that digital media offers a complete experience and relationship to music. We have to change the cycle. We must step outside the moment, and beyond the post 30 generational paradigm, shift practices – lead rather than follow, and make sacrifices in order to build a sustainable future for the independent music industry. We must reflect and remember why we are here – how we came to music, and what it has offered us – why we believe in making and buying records, and seek to illuminate those things and offer them to future generations. We must remember that music should never be a luxury item, and that cost is a major factor within the foundations of a life long love affair. We must find a way to rekindle a wide spread understanding of the value in investing in music – to encourage people to buy it, while labels need to find a way to make their releases more financially accessible – allowing more people to afford them, subsequently increasing demand and making production more profitable. We must recognize the reasons younger listeners acquire music for free, and that a consumer always needs something tangible and persuasive to change their practices. The fact that technology has changed the terms, does not mean that basic human desire and needs have shifted. The success of the LP proves this, as well as the fact that people are willing to pay for music, even when it is avaible for free – as long as it is part of a fair economy, and offers a desired attribute not available in another format. We simply have to find a way to change the market in order to offer more access to it – to make it more fair and inviting. We need to recognize that we all suffer under the sins of the major label industry. To survive, we have to take the reigns and return the relationship of interdependency and trust between listeners and producers of music. All of this can be most easily activated by the cassette. The young labels who have embraced this format – who have drenched it in love, produced beautiful, ambitious, and risk laden releases, and reminded us of the importance of the object of music – of how easily we can change the terms. Cassettes are a labor of faith and love – founded on a belief in art – occupying a tiny corner of the recording industry – but one of tremendous importance. They are a mirror of better ideals – offering lessons which illuminate the path to our future survival and growth.
5 thoughts on “why tapes matter”
I think your analysis is, essentially, correct. Touch comes into the picture in 1982, when the walkman first showed, and the desire for mobility was evident. Folks were well-aware that the CD (for us, 2-3 years later) was far from what it was cracked up to be, and there were plenty of soothsayers around predicting disaster at that time… Thanks so much for the time and effort put into this and much food for thought on many different levels – not least in trying to work out how to move forward in these precarious times… as always, historical context is invaluable and instructive.
Agree with this on so many levels. I started making music on cassettes back in the 1990s, when mp3 came along I never saw it as a threat. For me it is indeed a sort of promo tool, a way for people to sample the merchandise quickly and conveniently. That said, I have always made my releases exclusively for the cassette and I do not issue whole albums on mp3 as it defeats the object for me. I want the listener to engage with the material in contexts other than habitual computer/phone/streaming. If they make the effort to use a tape deck, then I’d like to think that this giving of attention to my releases will lead to a positive and fulfiling relationship ; they will get plenty out of it in the long run!
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