von Benjamin Düster
When I started Merzbow the idea was to make cheap cassettes which could also be fetish objects. I recorded them very cheaply and then packaged them with pornography.1)http://www.esoterra.org/merzbow.htm – Masami Akita
Asked about a possible revival of the cassette format the founder of the Record Store Day Germany Jan Köpke responded: “I personally think that cassettes are a charming retro gimmick. But not more than that. MC’s were always the cheap alternative to vinyl records: sound, look and haptic which today are seen as core qualities of vinyl were always limited with this format. I would classify the recent releases on MC’s as general expression of a retro trend within single urban hipster hotspots.”2)Bundesverband Musikindustrie E.V. (2015): Musikindustrie in Zahlen 2015. Verfügar unter: http://www.musikindustrie.de/statistik/ [Translated by BD.]
I have to admit it: When I packed my household stuff in a van and headed to Berlin in late 2014, I saw cassettes as the ultimate symbol of hipsterness. Wondering at that time, if moving to Berlin would turn me into some pretentious arty guy, I found myself in a backlash of teenage angst. And now here I am two and a half years later, entangled in a bunch of projects involving tapes and none of them is even a bit arty, hip or pretennnncioussssssssssnnnnnyyyyyyyyaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh whatever.
In the last couple of years there’s been the rise of several large cassette related projects such as the Cassette Store Day, an annual and international event basically praising tapes in the same weird way as Köpkes Record Store Day does with vinyl. Noteworthy is also the launch of the United Cassettes website featuring a world map locating a section of the currently active tape labels.3)United Cassettes: http://unitedcassettes.com For a more comprehensive list it is a good idea to visit the website of the Tabsout cassette podcast: http://www.tabsout.com/?page_id=15214 Not to forget a bunch of podcasts only dealing with cassette releases like Tabsout, Norelco Mori or Guide Me Little Tape and of course the hundreds and hundreds of artists and labels producing and releasing cassette tapes around the globe.
So does all of this render Köpke’s snappy remark void? Well, for some labels cassettes still are a cheap alternative to the production of vinyl records or CD’s. This is because these formats always include the reliance on pressing plants which are becoming more and more overbooked. The production of tapes however, doesn’t necessarily rely on external plants as the dubbing process can be conducted on nearly any hifi cassette deck and may also incorporate the reuse of old tapes from flea markets or thrift shops. For small independent labels therefore, cassettes constitute an alternative solution for physical releases as their production compared to vinyl and CD’s is keen and can be organized more flexibly. Another part are the shipping and distribution costs that can be minimized due to the size and weight of cassettes. Moreover, not for everybody the ultimate frenzy of sound releasing culminates in the form of a funky coloured vinyl record. Some projects like the New York based None Records use cassette tapes as a distinctive format by for example preparing them to intentionally unreel when being played.
That said, I see currently two tendencies of approaching cassettes:
- As an artefact of bygone times that has been rediscovered lately and is now having a revival.
- As a format and instrument within certain music scenes and communities such as Noise or Black Metal that more or less constantly used tapes during the last decades.
Devotees of the former tendency rediscover tapes for their physical affordance4)See Brian Bloomfield, Yvonne Latham, Theo Vurdubakis. Bodies,technologies and action possibilities: When is an affordance? in: Sociology, 44:3/2010, 415–433.compared to digital based non material ways of music consumption. Supporters of the latter position however, will most likely deny that cassettes have been lost or even dead at some point. Nonetheless, within these opposing approaches there’s a habit spanning both viewpoints: That is fetishizing consumed goods in the Internet by shooting photos of them and displaying them to others. Or to put it another way: There’s #foodporn, #cabinporn and who’d have thought? There’s #tapeporn. Yup, we sure do like looking at stuff. What tapeporn basically describes is the phenomenon of people deriving pleasure from looking at pictures of cassettes on the web showing rare pieces from certain collections or the latest neat release of a label. Interestingly, when posts for example on Instagram are pooled under the generic term #tapeporn, a notable amount features photos of Black Metal releases. Black Metal, a music scene that since its emergence in the early 1990’s continuously used the cassette because of its limited and hard to get “authentic” outsider status, is now widely featured in the most cherry picky and “unauthentic” social media platform there is.
So is there any sense in these tangled-up analog and digital practices of music making and appreciation?
As far as I can tell the haptic and visual appearance of cassettes plays a particular role in the present preoccupations with them. People cherish and draw on tapes because they allow to establish a physical relationship with recordings of music, that cannot be ensured by MP3’s or streaming. Their specific technical limitations and preconditions are transformed into aesthetic experiences. Nevertheless they are not used as an escape. Cassettes accompany and expand the digital experience of music in our everyday lives. Looking back to the time when Masami Akita brought up his Pornoise tape/mail art series in the mid 80’s I can undeniably say that today everything has changed so much that in the end nothing has changed at all (Daedelus Boiler Room NYC Live Set). We truly turned cassettes into what Akita intended them to be: absolute fetish objects. But not by equipping them with cheap porn but by putting them and their physical appearance into the focus of our sexual pleasure. So when we do cassettes, meaning when we devote our free time with buying, manipulating, touching, using them we now also parade them we DO them by looking at them satisfying our voyeuristic needs.
And basically what I want to keep in mind with all this stuff is that stuff is stuff is stuff. Just stuff. It’s fun to get meta about it but there’s definitely a limit to it where things start to feel hollow and…
of course, Hannah used cassettes tapes for distributing her messages because it’s a more practical way of controlling who gets the recordings at a certain point of the story.
Actually, I’m just kidding: the true reason is that it wouldn’t have been very sexy for the visual effect of the series if the characters just exchanged a greasy USB stick with the cap already missing.
Well, me neither.
I didn’t even watch that show I just read the Wikipedia article.
Endnoten [ + ]
|2.||↑||Bundesverband Musikindustrie E.V. (2015): Musikindustrie in Zahlen 2015. Verfügar unter: http://www.musikindustrie.de/statistik/ [Translated by BD.]|
|3.||↑||United Cassettes: http://unitedcassettes.com For a more comprehensive list it is a good idea to visit the website of the Tabsout cassette podcast: http://www.tabsout.com/?page_id=15214|
|4.||↑||See Brian Bloomfield, Yvonne Latham, Theo Vurdubakis. Bodies,technologies and action possibilities: When is an affordance? in: Sociology, 44:3/2010, 415–433.|