Why Digital Audiophiles Don't Miss Cassettes

She & Him—the duo made up of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward—are one of the latest to attempt to bring back the cassette tape. Before the allure of that background hiss tugs at your wallet, remember what made tapes inferior from the start—and why you should focus instead on the music tools here, which reproduce everything about tapes worth reminiscing over.

It's dangerous business trying to tell someone what is and isn't fashionable. The backlash just gets you things like blinding neon, skinny jeans, and the most ridiculous clothing from each era with hopes of ironic appeal. So when record labels and major artists start releasing their new albums on cassettes, the best thing to do is quickly dispel any myths of a comeback and pretend like it never happened.

She & Him—the duo made up of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward—are one of the latest to attempt to bring back the cassette. According to M. Ward, "vinyl has a scratch to it and tapes have a hiss" that he really likes. I can appreciate the nostalgia for whisper hiss of the little plastic tapes, and I can also understand the memories of a time when mix-tapes were born and music was more shareable than ever. Who didn't like when it was socially acceptable and expected for crushes to exchange tapes of their favorite songs? What I don't understand is why you would actually release a new album on a cassette when digital can accomplish every single sonic quality a tape can, but without the frustration.

There was, and still is for the most part, something so satisfying about creating your own mixes with the songs you liked in the order you preferred. That's probably why sites like Everyone's Mixtape, Tape.ly, and Mixtape.fm all aim to digitally re-create the most important things cassettes ever did—by being recordable—which was creating a culture of sharing music.

The fact is, cassette sales were only 2 million in 2012—in contrast to 833 million CD sales. Vinyl is again a booming medium, though only to the tune of $177 million. Beyond the nostalgia aspect that vinyl still carries, a technical argument could be made for the format and the reason it never completely died. Cassettes on the other hand lack any technical reason for a comeback in 2013. Originally tapes possessed a portability that made them an attractive alternative, but in the face of digital downloads and ever CDs, cassettes are merely an exercise in frustration.

Before the allure of the tape hiss and a simpler time tug at your wallet, it'd be good to keep in mind some of the things that made them an inferior product from the start. Relatively quick deterioration of the magnetically coated internal tape makes longevity a non-starter, finding specific tracks is at best a guessing game, and still needing an A and B side add insult to injury. Don't be a sucker. If you want to find or share music, use these digital tools instead:

Fifteen Digital Tools For Finding New Music

  • Elbows is a music engine like WeAreHunted, which was acquired and became Twitter Music.
  • Adtunes.com finds music that's in advertising—great for when you can't Shazam a commercial fast enough.
  • Shazam more for when you're at dinner at a cool restaurant and you know they'll be playing new things you haven't heard.
  • Oh My Rockness for local show listings.
  • Kitsune.fr/music is a French clothing line and new label that makes monthly mixes of really cool stuff from France and beyond.
  • Todd P and Nonsense lists are both underground e-mail newsletters and usually have artists we know nothing about (but are pleasantly surprised to hear).
  • PopGun Booking newsletter is what you should scour to find new music and listening to those bands' songs online.
  • FBI FM in Australia and other online radio stations from across the world: No one realizes how easy it is to just stream great stuff in the background all day.
  • College radio stations are great to stream from online, because they play cooler music, not needing to worry about ad revenue.
  • Twitter is a great place to find college radio stations with an online presence.
  • Spotify's "Related Artists" tab has some hit or miss algorithms, but the hits are worth it.
  • Bandcamp.com is a good place to search "tags" and seeing what is hightest-selling each day.
  • College Music Journal has a monthly mix tape they send out via email.
  • Talkwalker Alerts are great for being reminded of important dates for festivals like CMJ and SXSW.

Tyler Hayes contributes to Hypebot.com and does interviews for NoiseTrade's blog. He often writes about music and the impact of tech is having on that industry, which can be often be found on his personal blog, Liisten.com. Tyler also runs the site Next Big Thing which ranks user submitted links for an interesting hub of music related content.

Thanks to Jackie Shuman for her awesome suggestions on new music-finding tools.

Image by Mike Licht on Flickr.

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  • Rick Price

    Good machines and Good tape consumers were a universe apart from the "mix tape"/garage band/Youth culture, who like audiophiles are egocentric enough to give no quarter to anybody's view point but their own. I'd noticed many times before the Cassette drifted out of marketplace prominence that the people who bought tapes to listen to and the people who bought blank tape (Types II or IV) to dub Vinyl or off FM were two very separate tribes. The ones who bought the high speed dupe pre-recorded tapes didn't care about sound quality. The people who bought GOOD machines (Upper end Naks, Pioneers and one or two others-maybe.....a Sony or two) and good tapes to use in them VERY seldom bought pre-recorded tapes, pretty much EVER. DMP, TELARC and even the Majors branched out into Type II Dolby HX Pro/ 1:1 duplication speed tapes and a few crossed over, but I never bought Pre-recorded tapes until the twilight of the format and I wanted a sampling of the phenomenon before they disappeared.

  • Caleb Cbg Scott

    You are a fool. Its a poor mechanic who blames his tools. You've probably never heard a high quality recording on a high quality cassette receiver. Do your research before you start claiming that the digital medium is far superior than analog. Digital recordings to me sound like dookie after listening to a fully analog recorded cassette on a proper deck with full azimuth control. Same thing with vinyl. I made the mistake of buying a digitally recorded record which sounded lifeless with the added problem of the famous crackle of phono. Do your research dummy

  • Caleb Cbg Scott

    oh and if you want to claim that its a guessing game finding tracks on a cassette, get a proper deck, my nak skips tracks just fine and the sound would blow you away

  • Glenn Davey

    Reminds me: I should copy all my old tapes I made of me and my friends and our fake radio station. I can just imagine the deterioration by this point, and I'd hate to lose a special part of my youth. Tapes were magical. As soon as I could do the "Radio" thing on computer I lost interest.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    Listen--really listen--to everything being said about every medium mentioned here. They're not really talking about how it sounds or how the hiss or crackle improves the actual fidelity. They're talking about what those sounds make them think of or what they remind them of. That's how sound and music work. When you think of them that way, there are plenty of arguments for any medium of audio as a way to make you remember a time or a mood. 

  • ad3

    most of the artists i know of making tape runs are in the realm of avant/noise rock/musique concrete/ultra lo-fi/etc.  for them the tape is important in that the medium is the message. the art deliberately challenges the idea that recordings should be as clean and high-fidelity as possible, and challenges the idea of what music is, fullstop.  I guess it follows that since those types of artists are on the bleeding edge of music, less-weird indie bands would try to borrow some of their cachet... 

  • crankshaft

    If someone was releasing music on only one (crappy) format, that would be one thing, but making a tiny run of an additional format is nothing to hyperventilate (or blog-post) about.

  • Ted Sbardella

    Tape is annoying.. when I think of tape I think of rainy days riding the bus home from school dreaming about some girl I liked.. not about 10 or so songs - the frustration and splicing paying  7 bucks for a "good" blank tape.  Nope I hated hiss I hated it.. I would record in dolby but leave the button off because I like the higher pitch or whatever a tape.. I would never ever ever ever ever ever ever buy a tape of a band that was like stabbing myself in the eye - to buy the tape rather than the record - that was like taking your money out of your wallet and peeing on it then putting it back in your pocket.  I think I never bought a tape of a band. In fact bringing back tape having people pay for a crappy tape I think I would get just a little angry..  You spent money on blank tapes because you wanted a crappier copy you could play on the bus or the car  When you wanted to listen to music at your house that was not moving you listen to the record. or or or the reel to reel and even that was not as good.  That is what mp3 is for now .. omg.. no this is to much. . You know what tape hiss is .. it is the sound of suck.. It really is its the sound of "less of something" .. Its like thinking the plastic bag taste gives the hotdogs a better flavor.. no no it doesnt.  I will tell you this.. and listen.. I heard She &Him played in the Red Lobster  I was there with the mother in law. Yes. Red Lobster muzak.. So that is what we are talking about here  You go ahead and sell your tapes to the Red Lobster see if they want them. Tapes.. That is the dumbest thing.. How about each time we have sex we have to have a baby that would be soooo old school.. Because that is what tape hiss is.. a freakin baby screaching while you are trying to listen to Rush or The Cars and trying to get up the nerve to go talk to her.. yech..