Vinyl, cassette or CD: What's the 'right' choice?

There’s a cassette tape sitting on my bookshelf.

It’s bright orange, it rattles when you move it just slightly, and the letter “B” litters the orange surface.

Tiny Philadelphia-based record label Ticklebutt Records produced the tape. It’s called 75:24 and it’s packed with unreleased songs from a little more than a couple dozen of the underground’s most visceral bands. There are tunes by Algernon Cadwallader, 1994!, Snowing, Ape Up! and many more.

I ordered the tape in December. I have yet to hear a second of it. And so it sits on my bookshelf.

It’s not that I don’t want to listen to the tape. That’s hardly the case. I wish I could crack that case open and let the music within pour into my ears. Unfortunately, cassette tapes – and most forms of music media for that matter – aren’t really designed to handle that kind of playback. I’ve been meaning to find a cheap cassette player to listen to the tape, but certain things get in the way. School. Work. Sleep. As much as I want to listen to these tunes, finding a way to listen to the tape isn’t at the top of my list of priorities.

There’s been plenty written about the current cassette culture. Even more space has been dedicated to the resurgence in vinyl. Words like “nostalgia” and “aesthetics” get tossed around trying to describe the appeal of these types of quasi-obsolete media. Yet no one seems to really discuss practically in all of this. Perhaps because it’s the kiss of death to mediums like vinyl or cassettes.

Or is it? Impose recently had Bart Records‘ founder Kevin Stebner discuss his all-cassette label. Stebner’s discussion of his selected medium was quite revealing:

As far as the whole “cassette culture” thing goes, it’s all just a joke. It has nothing to do with nostalgia, nothing to do with aesthetics. Tapes are just the way I could get stuff out there with regards to my means. It simply is, straight-up, the most functional and inexpensive format, with superior sound quality (for reals!), incredibly quick turn over, and the ability to do low-production runs. Not to mention, a tape is relatively impossible to destroy. I value DIY ethics very strongly, and I personally fold every cover, dub every tape, stuff every envelope. Every single thing released on BART has been lovingly assembled with love and care. I don’t know how I’d it any other way.

For Stebner, the cassette is the most viable medium. They’re cheap, easy to produce and allows for Stebner to put his DIY-elbow grease into it. It is practical. The medium that helped change the face of Iran has once again proven its worth for many of the same reasons. Only this time, it’s Canadian post-hardcore bands instead of religious Iranians finding a medium for their culture in the cassette.

The popularity of vinyl is a reflection of practicality, at least, in some ways. For a certain set of music listeners, vinyl is something of a practical reflection of one’s lifestyle. If you have the space for a vinyl player and don’t have to worry about lugging around crates of the stuff whenever you move, you may be in this category. And as much as personal aesthetic taste is a factor, if you’re a person who tends to seek out bands that produce vinyl-only releases, then your love of vinyl is just as much a reflection of practicality as it is a personal choice.

However, of the three main selections for physical musical playback, CDs may be the most practical. Of course, from the business angle, CDs continue to be the most viable option in terms of a physical medium. They’re easy and cheap to produce, and easy for listeners to consume. More people have the ability to play and listen to a CD than a record or cassette. If you’re reading this post, chances are your computer has a CD-drive. Pop a CD in and you have immediate access.

It’s hard not to come across any article about the vinyl or cassette resurgence and not see someone bash the format of the CD. And, in some ways, I can see why. For older listeners, the CD appears to be something rolled out as a way for the music industry to make more money in a cost effective manner. To them, CDs seem cold, sterile, almost alien.

I’ve never felt that way about CDs. Growing up, I saw my parents give up their vinyl player and records. Those massive records seemed foreign to me. When I started to get into music, and I mean really get into music, CDs seemed great. I could access the music I wanted to listen to, skip around to certain tracks with ease, and have a nice, compact and (I hope) smartly-designed package. And yes, CDs do have the kind of artwork one can find with a vinyl album release: Sure it’s smaller, but the inventive and creative individual can find a way to work with the medium, in the same way so many people love to reminisce about creating artwork for that perfect mixtape.

And creation is what the CD has above the cassette and record. Considering the personal computer is as common a household item as a refrigerator, it’s lead to the CD becoming the democratizing physical musical medium (sorry cassettes.) Whereas the means of production may have once made the CD appear like the cold hand of industry, chances are you have the ability to produce your own CD right now. Put together a playlist, pop a CD in, and you’ll have your very own CD in no time.

Mixtape lovers lament the decline of painstakingly-created little gems of personalized cassettes. Who’s to say that the ease of creating a CD-R is any less painstaking? Who’s to say a CD can’t have the personal touches of vinyl?

Well, you. You, of course, have the ability to hop onto whatever musical medium your heart desires. But, just because you like a certain medium, it doesn’t make any other less valid so long as tangible, thriving sounds are being recorded and listened to using some random medium. It won’t surprise me one bit if there’s a sudden interest in CD-R culture any time soon: For a young, struggling band, $20 in CD-Rs could very well build a little community.

But, for now, cassettes appear to be the medium of choice for tastemakers. And until then, that little orange tape will sit on my bookshelf, waiting for me to get my act together and find some way of listening to it.

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3 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. theairport #

    Semi-related: over at the blog “CreateDigitalMusic,” Peter Kirn has written a pretty insightful article on the progress of digital audio quality, which has been much maligned from virtually everyone across the board.

    And it’s kind of a phony argument to say that cassettes are “more DIY” than any other medium; you’re absolutely correct by saying that if you’re going to put your fingerprint on an album, the intention is going to reveal itself one way or another. I know musicians who have released CDs in personally-cut holders with their own art and liner notes. All handmade. CDs, however, offer the unparalleled ability to cheaply streamline the recording process. I can record, produce, and distribute my own music on a computer for a increasingly small fraction of what an analog recording set up would cost, excluding the cost of hiring a producer as well. It’s still possible to bounce to tape after everything is mixed down, but tape is still expensive, and it just seems like an extraneous and laborious step to, at that point, put everything to cassette at that point.

  2. johngrant #

    Cassettes CDs (and to a lesser extent, 8-Track tapes) were/are successful for precisely the same reason; Portability. Convenient DIY manipulation is great but merely incidental. Now that portable technology has shifted into hyper-drive it seems likely that CDs will be slipping into the cut-out bins at a greater rate than previously imagined. Vinyl has never been portable and for that reason is not really part of the same equation, and ironically, looks like it will outlast Cassettes & CDs as preferred music media.

    I’ve got got quite a few vinyl LPs over 50 years old that still sound great. Cassettes? Laughable shelf life. CDs?
    As you said we’ve all got CD drives; Not that long ago we also had floppy drives.

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