Why Cassettes Rule if You’re in a Band

Some of what I have around the house

Out here in 2022, we’re about 15 years into the ostensible Cassette Revolution* – well past the point where it could reasonably be considered a “revolution.” Tapes are just part of what we’re doing now, as a culture, or whatever. There are countless independent labels out there that specialize in tapes. Major labels are issuing runs of cassettes for albums by million-selling acts. There are lively online forums dedicated to cassette culture

And yet, if you mention on social media or in a normie setting that you’re putting out a tape release, someone is bound to say: “Tapes? Seriously?!

Yeah, seriously. It’s not nostalgia. It’s not irony. As far as I’m concerned, cassette is the most sensible physical medium for a gigging local/regional band to mess with. For a lot of active bands, it’s the only physical medium worth messing with. Tapes are the best thing to happen to a touring band’s merch table in recent memory. 

I do understand the incredulity from some quarters, which can even border on revulsion at times. You know who really doesn’t like tapes? People who grew up in the era when tapes were the de facto medium for music, especially among kids. They remember what it was like to pull out a pencil and arduously re-spool an unspooled tape. They remember tapes getting warped and melted from sitting in a hot car. They remember the warble and flange you get from an overused tape. They remember how easily tapes (and especially their cases) could be cracked and crushed. They remember their relief at finally getting their hands on a CD player, with its objectively higher-fidelity audio quality and seamless no-flip-required listening experience.

And that’s why the sector of cassette enthusiasts who are in it for nostalgia is a bit of a fringe sector. By and large, people who lived through cassettes’ ’80s/early ’90s heyday don’t feel particularly nostalgic about them, or at least don’t want to relive those experiences.

So those folks don’t need to buy tapes if they don’t want to. Plenty of other people buy tapes. And that’s the bottom line: If you’re a local/regional band, and especially if you gig out of town frequently, you’re going to want to put out tapes, because people buy tapes.

Let’s hit on some of the key points of why tapes are great for bands:

  • You can price a tape at $5. It’s a good idea to have a thing on the merch table that costs $5, because it’s a sum of money a lot of people are willing to pay without thinking twice. You’re playing in a small club with a bar, where $5 will be equivalent to or less than the cost of a beer. This is not complicated.
  • The cost of manufacturing tapes is low. That’s why you can price a tape at $5. Depending on where you have them duplicated, and how large or small of a run you have, there’s a strong chance $3-$3.50 of that $5 is pure profit for your band. No other physical medium has margins like that. The last time I did a run of seven-inches, we made only $1 in profit from every record sold. If we raised the price, the records sold far more slowly. 
  • Turnaround times for a run of tapes are pretty quick. You’re looking at maybe four to six weeks. By contrast, the few vinyl pressing plants that serve small-time bands are extremely backed up, and have been for years. You’ll be lucky if they can turn around your order in less than six months. 
  • When you buy a tape at the merch stand, you can just put it in your pocket and keep your hands free for the rest of the night. You can’t do that with records. You can’t even do that with T-shirts, usually. A pocket-size piece of merch is pretty great in cities where people will be walking or taking public transit home.
  • It’s easy and cheap to make a run of cassettes at home to take on tour as an extra item for the merch table. You’ll often see touring bands make a cassette sampler of songs from throughout their discography. That can be appealing for people who have never seen your band before, and haven’t been following you since your first release. Plus, if you duplicate your samplers at home using a standard dual tape deck, you can price them even lower than $5 as an incentive to buy! 

Of course, the naysayers are still going to be incredulous. Almost every time, they’ll hit you with the next big question: “Does anyone actually listen to cassettes?!

To which I respond: I don’t give a shit. 

Look. Every band you go out to see in this century – their music is all available digitally somewhere. Probably streaming for free. People buy physical copies because they like to have a memento of something they enjoy. Music heads like to support bands that impress them. Tapes make it easy to satisfy those desires. 

For whatever it’s worth, loads of people in their 20s have been buying tape decks so they can listen to the tapes they buy. A fair number of those people have learned how to repair tape decks, too. But considering any tape I put out is going to have a download card in the case anyway, I really don’t care whether anyone puts the actual tape in an actual tape deck and listens to it that way. You can put the tape on a shelf, treat it like a tchotchke. You can put it away in a case with your other tapes. It’s yours, and you can do what you want with it.

The most recent EP from my band, Shelter Dogs. We’re sold out of our own supply, but our label, King Pizza Records, still has a few copies available. Look for the next EP in spring 2022.

What I care about is that tapes sell, and they sell faster than anything else on the merch table. I haven’t sold a CD since 2013. I still have seven-inches left over from a run of 500 I had pressed in 2011. I’ve played in bands where we made our gas money on tour entirely through tapes and T-shirts. Bands sell merch for practical reasons, and if it’s especially practical to sell tapes, I’m going to be in favor of selling tapes. 

Not to say everyone needs to run out and find a tape deck and start listening to tapes right away. Vinyl and CD both have higher-fidelity audio, and they’re both more durable, compared to tapes. But I would encourage anyone to pick up a tape from the merch table when you see a local band that you really like. It’s easy. And I would definitely encourage any gigging band to release tapes. If you’re holding back because of something like the audio quality itself, or some other gripe you have against the medium – that’s a decision you’re making on principle, and it’s a weird hill to die on. This is one of those cases where giving the audience what they want is utterly harmless – beneficial, even – to everyone concerned.

* From what I remember, certain voices in the media started declaring the “Cassette Revolution” was on as far back as 2006 or 2007. In ’07 or ’08, I recall spotting a few tapes at the front counter of a record store in Connecticut and asking the owner, a buddy of mine, how the Cassette Revolution was going. He said, “It’s not.” I have some ideas about why there was some buzz around tapes at the time. In the mid-’00s, among indie rock people, it was considered fairly “advanced” to be into noise music and/or black metal. Those are both communities where tapes had always been in fashion, because the imperfections of the medium actually added depth and nuance to the music in question. Having lived through that moment, I promise there were far, far more people in the broader indie rock audience who gave lip service to noise and black metal than who actually listened to it. By ’09, lo-fi indiepop was trending in the “mainstream indie” world, and indiepop is another subgenre where tapes never really went out of style, because it’s an inherently nostalgic subgenre and a lot of indiepop musicians chose to record on cassette four-tracks anyway. So basically, we were talking about the return of cassettes for years before audiences caught on to the degree that they became the most practical medium for a small-time band.

About Brian LaRue

Writer, Editor, Guitarist, and So On
This entry was posted in Arts and Culture, The Internet, Thinking About Media and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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