Cassette: the new vinyl, and other analog factoids

Chris Yee

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:

(Link to video here:

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.”


(Images by Shane Gavin/roomiccube and cassettes)

Of Eggmen, Crabalockers and Walruses

Jacqueline Ranit

For a song John Lennon insisted was strung together by nonsense, “I am the Walrus” continues to propagate much discussion and debate as to its the true meaning (or any meaning at all). Featured in “The Magical Mystery Tour”, a made-for-TV film directed and produced by the Beatles themselves, the song title was inspired by a Lewis Carroll poem called “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” with an underlying theme of anti-Capitalism.

There were numerous reasons as to why Lennon wrote with such a deliberate disregard for coherency, a main one being that in the duration of composing the song, he was heavily under the influence of LSD. The songwriter defended his lyrics by claiming he was tired of suffering the criticism from “pretentious schoolmasters and university professors” and used this as a way to seek his revenge. “I’m not interested in creating illusion,” said Lennon, “I just want to say direct whatever I am trying to say. I’m not interested in poetry with a capital “P” … The less said, the better. I would like to be able to say it without lyrics, but I can’t. I’m just – just verbal. Somehow it is clarity that I am looking for, clarity of expression…”

While it might have been intentional or the simply the side-effects of drugs, “I am the Walrus,” manages to evoke a certain kind of feeling and imagery, such as in the line, “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.” Among the creative gratuities he took with the song, the phrases which do provide some understanding are seemingly highlighted against the backdrop of colourful absurdity like the mention of “naughty girls” who have let their “knickers down,“ which shocked the BBC in 1967, where an increase in young women engaging in pre-marital sex was reported.

Despite his claim of wishing to convey thoughtlessness, Lennon spoke through his miscommunication to draw the audience in what may be wild goose chase or an ingenious attempt to question the world around them and “tickle their imagination”.


The New Economics of Music?

Chris Yee

Ideally, as Chloe Smith (one of my partners on this blog) said in one of her posts (EDIT: which is no longer on this blog as of Oct. 17, unfortunately), music should be made for the love of it, the perks be damned: money, fame, what-have-you. While there is something to be said about this ideal, on any level other than a grassroots, DIY one – which is, admittedly, a marginal position, say what you want about the virtues of it (as I would) – the business of music is still, well, a business.

It goes without saying, but this also entails the labels, the distributors and all the other middlemen seeking to maximize their profits – and very often shafting artists in the process.

Case in point: in the early 1990s, producer and noise rocker Steve Albini (famous for Nirvana’s In Utero and Big Black, as producer and musician respectively) wrote an essay, “The Problem With Music”, on the usurious arrangements many bands found themselves in with major labels around that time.

Of course, keep in mind that this was before the Internet made things even more complicated. Combating the associated spectre of file sharing, business models involving online distribution sprang up, succeeding first through online music stores like iTunes, then through streaming services like Spotify – many of which were free to the consumer (like, incidentally, Spotify).

This model was more problematic, even from the point of view of the service providers providing these “free” streaming services, as the labels wanted a piece of the pie in the form of licensing fees and royalties. (This issue has been much discussed, to say the least.)

We haven’t talked about the increased reliance on touring yet, or the greater role of corporate sponsorship (of concerts and music-related events, underwritten by the likes of Toyota and whoever owns Red Bull) and the licensing of content for use in a variety of ways (but mostly ads). Whoever these new developments will benefit is still very much in the air (so to speak).

(By the way, this piece by Damian Kulash of OK Go in the Wall Street Journal discusses these points better than I ever will here.)

It’s a hard act to follow right now, let’s just say.


Lightening up the News

Jacqueline Ranit

Few would be proud to admit it but Cher’s “Believe,” released in 1998, is kind of catchy. Could it possibly have to do with the artificial warbling in her voice which made it so memorable? Not known to many at the time, but this was the first instance popularizing auto-tune, the mathematical formula of “autocorrelation” which seamlessly corrects the flaws of singing out of pitch.

Ever since its resurgence in the hip hop and rap genre, many have come to criticize this computer perfecting software on the basis of true musicianship, so much that a heated debate grew between Jay Z and T-Pain over its usage. However, it seems that computer perfecting software has taken a new direction in how we appreciate the news. The Gregory Brothers achieved viral fame with their auto-tuning of a news bulletin, depicting a man’s outrage of an attempted rape against his sister in their neighbourhood of Huntsville, Alabama. Many of us know this Youtube video simply as “The Bed Intruder Song”.

Marshall McLuhan, a communication theorist, says “the shape of the medium shapes the way we think.” If that is the case, then does this also determine how we come to view serious news issues like these, as entertainment value? Antoine Dodson recalled his initial feelings since the song was sold on iTunes, “Some people do take it to be a joke… I don’t, and neither does my sister and neither does my family. It’s funny. We laugh at it all the time and listen to the song over and over. But that doesn’t change the fact that this was a serious event.”

While it may be unreasonable to simply disregard videos like these, because they do have the capacity for creativity, we should remember to be critical of the media we choose to consume and how it might, as McLuhan states, “invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values.”


Why Pop Sucks

Sasha Mann

Pop music’s most essential characteristic is predictability. Even if we only hear a snippet of a song, as listeners, we should have a pretty good idea of what the rest of the melody will be. It makes sense to our brains which need to find patterns in everything, and derives pleasure when it does find them. A boldly new and innovate sonic pattern doesn’t excite us as we might think but rather -on a neurological level- it drives us insane. This was perhaps shown most clearly when the harsh and discomforting sounds of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky caused the the upper crust of Paris in 1913 to break into a full scale riot (Radiolab). So in a sense, our potential desire for creativity is being actively fought by a part of us that secretly loves the ringtone version of Mozart or the Lady Gaga, the part that craves consistency and predictability (read mediocrity) above all else. In a sense, pop music functions not so much like an illegal drug than a pharmaceutical one. It preserves a little piece of your sanity by giving you the surety that as long as you stay tuned to the right radio station, you’ll never have to go through the potentially disorienting experience of having to adapt to a new type of music.

The most catchy melodies get remembered through a sort of Darwinian process. In the past in was folk songs, hymns and nursery rhymes that did this, lodged themselves in our minds. Only the “best” tunes, which many would call the worst ones, would be too catchy to forget. The words that accompanied these melodies weren’t as easy to remember as the pure melodies (have you noticed how many pop songs have whistling in them?) but they still got carried on the backs of these sequences of notes that we find pleasurable. So then, we wouldn’t just have a tune in our heads, we’d have the accompanying words and all their connotations.

We can tell a lot about a society by the lyrics of its best remembered songs. They always reflect its values and so when we read Canada or the State’s list of Top 40 songs, we shouldn’t be surprised to find out how many of them shamelessly promote materialism or a smarmy “be yourself” mentality. My friend’s mum is driving her car and belting out the lyrics to a song on the radio. The words are “I want to be a billionaire so fricking bad,’ (McCoy 2010) it’s making her passionate. I guess that’s the new American dream, a little bit of farmland to make apple pies on doesn’t cut it any more.

The information age has of course made “western” culture fully into what Harold Innis called a space bias society (Straw, Will et al 2011). Instead of building awe-inspiring skyscrapers to tell future generations about their successes, modern businesses’ net worth is largely determined through information; the online webs of people they have at their disposal doesn’t just translate into profit, it is now power in a direct form. All music is space biased in the way that it can be digitized and instantly spread across the world through peer to peer sharing. The most popular pop songs though are space biased in a more intangible way. The method through which they’re transmitted is the melodies and rhythms but a message always seeps through on top of them. The ability of underground music to represent a counter-culture or challenge dominant ideas is based on its ability to make these idea palatable through song. With pop music, there is an unstated desire by the record labels if not the artists themselves, to create a climate where their ideologies are normalized and what better way to do so than on a generic synthesizer laden track courtesy of Dr. Luke.

McCoy, Travie, Bruno Mars, Ari Levine and Philip Lawrence. Billionare. Fueled By Ramen. 9 March 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

“Musical Language” Radiolab. National Public Radio. nd. Web. 2 Nov. 2011

Straw, Will, Sandra Fabriele and Ira Wagman, ed. Intersections of Media and Communications . Toronto: Emond Montgomery, 2011. Print.

Technology and the Society of Music

Chloe Woodin

Does society influence the evolution of technology? Or does technology shape society? Was it the chicken that came first, or the egg…?

Arguments defending technological determinism over social construction of technology (and vice-versa) have been circling for years, with no real definitive conclusion as to which is the more accurate depiction of how technology and society interact. But really, why even bother picking sides in an argument that can’t be won?

Innis suggested that technology and society influence each other ( Like the chicken and the egg, they’re stuck in a continuous cycle. And I think it’s safe to say that neither society nor technology would fare very well without its counterpart.

Think about the close correlation between the evolution of music and technology. It’s no fluke; the music “society” is constantly changing to keep up with the latest technology, and technology is continually evolving to keep up with what the society wants.

The most pivotal change that I can recall in the music world was the movement from “hard copy” CDs to digital tracks.

The development of the Apple iTunes store made purchasing music more accessible and simpler for consumers; it provides users with an infinite amount of music at their fingertips, without ever having to leave the house. Consequently, as CD sales plummeted, compact discs became obsolete like the cassette tapes and vinyl records before them (

This new form of purchasing music provided consumers with the freedom to buy individual tracks without paying for the entire album, leading to a skyrocketing interest in singles over albums ( This, in turn, has influenced the music industry to redirect their focus from obtaining revenue from CDs, to churning out as many hit singles as possible.

The public’s interest in digital music has also given rise to the controversial software allowing access to pirated music for free. But that’s a whole different story.

The point is, technology changed the music society, and listeners influenced the creation of new technology. And so the determinism versus social construction of technology question persists.


Global Music Tribes

Chloe “Dancer” Smith

Music is the glue that brings unlikely strangers together as friends. Music creates culture and comradely to people of fundamentally different social, political, and national differences. Music, as it manifests itself today in our modern culture, has allowed for strangers to find immediate connection with one another.

A perfect example of this effect can be seen in the documentary Global Metal which bares the tagline “7 Countries, 3 Continents, 1 Tribe.”. In the film anthropologist Sam Dunn describes the metal subculture as a tribe having both set values and distinct variations. The concept is fascinating because it allows for music to be the catalyst for persons from different nations and cultures to relate with another. Whose is stay that music couldn’t be some universal unifying force that can cross all sorts of societal gaps? Was it not Bob Marley who believed that you could physically cure racism through music?

I believe it all comes down to the fact that no matter how removed individuals can be they can still relate to one another through their humanity. Music is simply a way for us to revel in our shared human experience, and despite difference in situations, we are able to put our minds to understanding the point of view of another.