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December 13, 2012

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Listening to music couldn’t be any easier these days. Qith an iPhone, a Wi-Fi connection, earbuds and one finger, you can avail yourself of Neil Young’s entire catalog, forgotten works by the late Hungarian composer György Ligeti or two dozen new releases every Tuesday.

Except that a few people want to make things more difficult. For years, we’ve encountered (and tolerated, with a sneer) those hippie-weirdo holdouts, hovering over outdated quadraphonic turntable systems, stacks of dust-cover-wrapped LPs and enormous speakers, insisting analog’s the only way to go, man. And that’s been fine.

Now cassettes, heavy casualties of the compact-disc age, are making a comeback, as more and more indie rock bands (even a few major label ones) are releasing music exclusively on Maxell and Memorex.

Few music lovers would admit to getting teary-eyed over the steady disappearance of the cassette, which, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, began after 1988, when the number of units sold peaked at 450.1 million; only about 15,000 cassettes sold in 2010. From 1983 to 1991, cassettes outsold LPs (which peaked in 1977, at 344 million units) and compact discs (which crested in 2000, almost exactly one decade after the cassette, with 942.5 million units sold). Not bad for a medium that, as late as 1979, was getting its ass kicked by the now-laughable 8-Track tape.

Before 1984, the year Pioneer developed the first automobile compact disc player, there was never any real competition once you got in your car. But popping a cassette into any sort of tape deck nowadays feels hopelessly anachronistic. So while LPs retreated to basements, happy to be the fetishized objects of an exclusive club, and compact discs took over the roads and highways, cassettes struggled—and failed— to achieve retro-cool status.

Still, for cash-strapped musicians, cassettes offer a workable compromise: it’s an analog product (like vinyl) they can actually afford to mass produce (unlike vinyl).

“The difference is that with cassettes they are much, much cheaper to produce than records,” says Jonathan Sterne, an associate professor in the department of art history and communication studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “They can be produced domestically and artistically. They can be released in batches of 50. They are more portable, easier to mail.” Compared with MP3s, Sterne says, “there’s a physical object, which is what a lot of these subcultures are invested in. They want a thing to go with the music.”

Sterne has written a number of scholarly essays and books about outdated and current communication technologies, contemporary cultural studies and other related subjects. He has two more books on the way, including “MP3: The Meaning of a Format.” He talks about a time when cassettes occupied the space now taken up by the MP3: they were cheap to consume and produce, and they were everywhere. (When Whitney Houston’s debut album outsold everything else in 1986, for example, it’s fair to say more than half of those units were cassettes.) And while they’re still popular in other parts of the world, cassettes—and especially cassette players—are becoming less common in North America, producing a kind of rarity, Sterne says.

“You can still find piles of them for next to nothing, but if you want to listen to a cassette it takes some work,” Sterne says.

two years ago, christopher 
Hoffmann, a 22-year-old art student from Southington, Conn., started Grappa Frisbee Records, a DIY-niche label that produces handmade cassettes. At any given time, Hoffmann’s label represents between 20-30 artists from around the world, most of whom aren’t tied into any sort of contract (they arrange to work with Grappa Frisbee through a “one-time submission”). Hoffmann says the demand for cassettes has to do with a deep-seated need to have to hunt for music that’s not readily available.

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December 13, 2012

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