The idea of formats playing a part in providing its own distinctive way of a music experience is close to being fully realized in 2015. We have music streaming, we have digital MP3s (and FLACs for the audiophiles), we have CDs, and of course we have vinyl. As much of the babble surrounds vinyl being a fetishized artifact of the 'hipster' age, it's clear there are many benefits to owning a piece of wax — along with some considerable downsides, of course.
But ever since vinyl has since been reintroduced into music consciousness — you would know when even 5 Seconds of Summer gets a vinyl release — it begs the question that a lot of people would rush to add their own personalized (sometimes self-righteous) opinion: do formats matter?
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Yes, yes it does.
To answer the question, which we attempted with vinyl a few years ago, let's take a look at the recent case of another once-widespread format coming back from its supposed "death": cassette tapes.
Like vinyl, a lot of us can remember tapes in their heyday. More importantly, we remember how much of a pain they were, as cheap as they were to acquire. You had to store them properly, you had to keep rewinding them for future playback, and after a while, it'll deteriorate in fidelity faster than you can use a pencil to manually rewind a tape.
Being the defacto format choice for music consumers from the late-80s to the mid-90s, there was still something so liberating about being able to carry your music everywhere you went. CDs were still fairly new and pricey as well, so cassettes were the prime choice for students on a budget, but its economical appeal reached out to a wide variety of listeners.
It was also the first time there was a true interactive quality to a music format — would-be musicians or part-time experimentalists could take existing and blank tapes and record their own pieces over it. It was either that or home taping — the first true manifestation of major label fears. For all its weaknesses to heat and humidity, it worked just fine and sounded good in a pre-file sharing era, granted you had a decent set of headphones and a Walkman that wouldn't eat it up on its fifth play.
But now we have iTunes, we have Spotify, we have Bandcamp. What business does it have in 2015?
As it turns out, just like vinyl, cassettes have never been "dead". Sure, most of it was relegated to bargain bins in record stores, but all along, the indies have been the ones keeping it alive. Just like vinyl survived just fine in the dance and punk communities through the 90s and 2000s, cassettes were still a favoured choice for an assorted variety of musicians: garage rock, drone, death metal, noise, psychedelic rock, lo-fi pop, outsider music.
A culture began since the inception of the tape, plainly known as the "cassette culture". It allowed easier distribution of music without the interference of external forces. Tapes could be made at home and sold at shows, through mail or fanzines. A sign of things to come, as we currently enjoy direct services like Bandcamp.
And of course, you could make personalized mixtapes.
What these kinds of musicians did for cassette, the format did the same for them, adding a definitive flavour to their music. It fostered a tape-sharing culture and, eventually, a growing acceptance and appreciation of a lo-fi aesthetic in music. Musicians are no longer running in the race for "the perfect studio sound". It's already there for them to acquire. They can just choose to be lo-fi if they feel it fits. So now you have an artist like Ariel Pink, himself inspired by the cassette culture and thrived in it in the early 2000s, who's on a major indie label like 4AD, but releases an album that still sounds like it was ripped from a worn-out cassette.
It's every bit as an aesthetic choice as it can be an unintentional one. But with the astounding quality of home recording tools, it's more likely the former.
With the recent nostalgia-driven fetishization of vinyl, it does give a bit of leeway for cassettes to reintroduce themselves back to a larger portion of consumers. "I'd like to think that I am from the 'cassette' generation." says Paulo Alverado, owner of Dangerous Goods. "I can still remember skipping lunch and saving my school allowance just so I could buy a new album by the end of the week. The smell of a newly opened cassette was addictive back then! (laughs)"
"...unlike vinyl, its consistently cheap price point invites anyone to start their own collection."
Dangerous Goods is a Singaporean label that started life as a Facebook-based distro, selling mainly hardcore punk and metal titles on vinyl and CD to local collectors, along with cassettes. The urge to start his own label soon overtook him, and he connected with a few Singaporean bands to start some physical releases himself.
He soon realized cassettes were a good start. "From a label's perspective, it is cheaper and much easier to put out than vinyl," says Alverado, an avid collector himself. "There are also more people that do cassette pressings in the Southeast Asian region, so you have a lot more options compared to pressing vinyl."
The first release on the label, a 5-track demo by Singaporean hardcore band Losing End, was pressed on 100 tapes, which have since been sold out. An additional "Tour Edition" was released to meet demand, but Alverado isn't so convinced by the format's mass collectible appeal compared to vinyl, even as US retail chain Urban Outfitters embraces the format, with titles and players available in their stores. "I think it will only remain as a personal preference (or by necessity) for small subcultures like punk/hardcore, and for people who have experienced it before and loved it," explains Alverado. "Last time, it was comparatively small and together with the Walkman, you had a very good companion on-the-go. But it's now rendered obsolete with portable MP3 players."
Needless to say, the releases on Dangerous Goods appeal mainly to avid collectors, as expected by its owner. But unlike vinyl, its consistently cheap price point invites anyone to start their own collection. Singaporean lo-fi pop band Obedient Wives Club were also early supporters with their 2013 EP, Murder Kill Baby.
But with Lithe Records, another Singaporean imprint, they've upped the ante.
Counting two releases since their inception in August 2015, they've put out a split release between Singaporean art-rock band sub:shaman and Japanese experimental group Qu, along with a 3-track EP by local emo band Forests. It's not just the content that's attracting listeners, it's the packaging. Pressed on tapes decorated with varying swirled colours and beautiful cover art, it recalls a similar practice with labels churning out "coloured" vinyl with deluxe sleeves.
But again, unlike these kind of vinyl records that are slowly increasing in retail price, these cassettes remain relatively affordable at SG$10 (about US$7). Pressed with high-quality sources and intricate mini-sleeves, these are not your standard lo-fi, basement cassettes that permeated the underground 30 years ago. The relatively quick process of putting out cassette tapes encourages labels to turn to the format, as record plants worldwide are struggling to fulfill orders.
"If the album artwork/layout and masters are all ready, cassette pressing takes a week or two, plus shipping. So in average, it takes about three weeks, if you get it pressed from the region," explains Alverado. "The last time I corresponded with vinyl pressing plants, I was told vinyl copies could only be ready in three months, excluding shipping time."
Now, with better technology, more labels are getting into the action. Limited cassette releases by Foals, Muse and Halsey dropped into record stores this year, while Cassette Store Day — mirroring its big brother holiday Record Store Day — just celebrated its third year on October 17. Ironically, one of the best-selling titles of 2015's Record Store Day was a remastered cassette release of Metallica's 1982 demo tape.
The format even got a big boost in the Marvel summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, where its role as the movie's nostalgia-inducing soundtrack extended to the main character's trusty mixtape for intergalactical adventures. Even as ridiculous as this purported comeback may soon get, similar to how vinyl has rocketed in popularity (and inadvertently, price), it's still a reminder of how fun it can get to experience the physical side of music.
For younger Singaporean bands who are choosing the format, it'll only boost the affordable trend. "I hope it encourages a newer generation of fans to accept or try the cassette format, and also fall in love with it in the process." says Alverado, who is currently scheduling two new cassette titles, soon to be released.
The growing acceptance of cassette could be seen as the tail-end of the vinyl resurgence, but it signals something far greater in our age of streaming: people still want physical copies. And with cassettes, we've come to appreciate its aural character — just like the crackling sounds when the needle drops on an old record, tape hiss is now something we can look forward to as we hit the play button on our dusty Walkman.
But why bother with all of that when we can experience music at its highest resolution? With formats now, the way we consume music varies. We can choose to treat physical formats as simply objects on a shelf or an entirely different way of listening to your favourite album. Vinyl allows, nay, forces you to pay attention to the album as a whole, while giving you the luxury of extensive album art and lyrics. CDs provide that experience on a smaller scale, without the need to purchase a turntable set-up. Cassettes force you to rethink what you deem as enjoyable sound quality. Don't be mistaken, tapes are capable of reproducing great-sounding albums, but if you're in on the ride for tapes, you'll have to accept its warm, imperfect, hiss-laden character.
So obviously, it will not possess the hi-fidelity benefits of vinyl or advanced lossless formats, and ultimately it will never be a preferred choice for listening to music, but just like the kind of music we choose to listen to, we're now endowed with options to experience them in entirely different ways.
It's no longer music the way it's meant to be heard, but music the way it could be heard.