For many music connoisseurs nowadays, tangibility is still king. Vinyl, once the butt of jokes involving stubborn adherence to the ways of a pre-digital past, or obtuse attempts at conspicuous distinction (to put things lightly), is now seeing an uptick in its sales at a time when music on physical media isn’t selling particularly well in general.
According to this Ars Technica report, sales figures of vinyl in the US went up 33% in 2009, from 1.9 to 2.5 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
While not quite as dramatic a jump, vinyl sales in the US went up 14% the following year (2010), to 2.8 million units, according to Rolling Stone.
(Incidentally, Billboard reported that “the 10 top-selling vinyl artists and artists in 2010 were split 60/40 between indie acts and heritage acts,” perhaps lending a grain of truth to the jokes about the market for vinyl being “hipsters and boomers.”)
And that’s just the sales figures from the till, not counting the used market or new pressings for resale (by record labels or bands themselves) – both of which may account for still more record sales.
Now another analog format is making a reappearance: perhaps not in the way vinyl has, but enough that the likes of the Wall Street Journal have seen it fit to run a trend piece on it. Behold, the compact cassette:
Obviously, this trend of indie labels putting out new cassette releases has stewing for quite some time before this piece was released, but still – behold!
In all seriousness, though, the most obvious thing to say about this renewed cassette culture is that is a reaction to the intangibility of the mediums of the Information Age.
Ceci Moss, quoting Paul Hegarty, says that the physical decay of analog media like the cassette tape (think the “grainy, degraded sound quality” of tape, even the fragility of the format – as anyone who’s munched up a tape can attest to), imbues “nostalgia and melancholy” – even a sort of life, “pneuma”, especially when juxtaposed with the “cyborg sound” represented by “digital media”.
But Moss also notes how the new cassette culture reflects the place the cassette held in establishing the underground music networks of the past. Now, she notes, “tapes… function as a basic form of patronage between musicians and their audience; since a physical format is no longer necessary to send or receive music, these objects become a gesture of support.”