Hipsters have a history of doing some pretty nutty stuff, like opening restaurants that only serve milk and cereal (google it). But when I told my girlfriend their latest trend was buying cassette tapes, she straight up told me: “I don’t believe you”. I don’t blame her either. No one seems to remember cassettes fondly. A clerk at Waterloo Records told me it was the new trend among hipsters and teenagers to save money. I didn’t think about it at the time. If you told me hipsters were skipping around all day as a fast way to get high, I’d probably believe it. Maybe I shouldn’t just write someone off as crazy. After all, I’ve made the non-obvious choice before: I drive a manual instead of an automatic, I drink craft beer instead of bud-whatever, I listen to Fall Out Boy instead of moving on from high school. Each time I did it for a reason. Maybe the hipsters had a point? There was only one way to find out. I busted out the last audio cassette I bought.
Ugh, it’s not even the good one. At least it has NSync and Baby Spice. I wonder if I can get better one…
Not happening! Still, I oughta give this a real shot with a tape that didn’t spend a full decade melting in my parents’ attic. I ran off to Half Price Books and looked for something I would know from my post-cassette days. I ended up finding George Strait’s Greatest Hits and “Southern Accents” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Two albums for two bucks isn’t a bad price. I won’t get into economics but I will say something inferior and outdated is usually pretty cheap. So far the clerk’s story was holding up. I went to check out.
Clerk: “George Strait! Nice choice.”
Me: “Thanks. Hey, do a lot of people buy cassettes here?”
Clerk: “No. I’ve been here two years and you’re the first.”
Hm. Still, the woman at Waterloo Records was right about the cost. I headed off to Waterloo to see what they had. The first thing I noticed is that Waterloo had NEW tapes, not just used ones. I checked the back of a Blink-182 case and it was marked 2015; it was a reprint. Also, unlike the tapes at Half Price, this one ran 15 dollars. Is that really the cheaper option? I checked the same album on CD: $7.50. It literally cost twice as much! That’s the opposite of cheaper!
Okay, this is a hipster thing, right? I should pick up a hipster album. Luckily, Waterloo Records is the filthy layer of rookie hipsters in Austin. Their competitors Breakaway Records and Piranha Records are fine places to find wide selections and knowledgeable staff but Waterloo is where you can go to find a table full of local Austin hipster band cassette tapes. And that table is where I found this gem:
Don’t let the number of tacks fool you. The songs are so short, this tape actually has two albums on it. Don’t let the price fool you. The band is so bad, this tape is actually worthless. I went to check out.
Me: “Do y’all sell cassette players?”
Clerk: “Nah, they don’t really make them anymore.”
You don’t say.
Clerk: “You’ll have to go to a Goodwill or something. But if you’re interested, you can have this. It’s a new band from around here. Oh, and this one too. They’re pretty good. These cassettes are great for local bands just getting off the ground.”
He handed me two tapes, one of which was actually a promotional cassingle. For those of you who don’t know: a cassingle is a tape with only one song on each side.
My cassette deck was long dead and no one I knew had one, so I checked out three separate Goodwill stores before I finally found one. (Well, the second one had a Hello Kitty alarm clock but that wasn’t gonna happen.) I took it home and opened my mind to something new. And apparently, something broken. I took it back and found another one. The rewind didn’t work but I knew just what to do!
I popped George Strait in first. The first most glaring problem with cassettes came out immediately: the quality is terrible. Later on I did some research into cassettes online and found a weirdly large number of people rallying for cassettes. A common argument supporting cassettes is that there actually are high quality tapes out there. This is technically true but very misleading. Anything you buy with music already put on it is low quality because the high quality ones run 15 to 30 dollars EACH. Even then, you need a high quality cassette player that will run you into the hundreds of dollars. Most cassettes you can buy are poor quality and chances are any cassette deck you find will be poor quality too. The Tom Petty album did sound a little better. The first one was probably damaged by the previous owner; a common problem with cassettes.
Next, I turned to the hipster bands. They were all terrible Austin Punk bands. Terrible. Punk is bad by itself but under-produced hipster punk is just garbage. The man at Waterloo said that local bands use tapes to record and distribute. A quick check online shows that you cassettes cost about 5 times the price of CDs so that idea is DOA, not to mention the longer write time per unit.
It’s downright asinine to use cassette tapes for recording. You can buy specialized equipment that lets you simultaneously write to the left and right stereo tracks of both the A and B sides but you limit yourself to four tracks for mono or two tracks for stereo and you get next to no mastering options. Digital recording software is far cheaper and much higher quality. Just look at Grimes. She does pretty much all of her writing, recording and production with just Apple Garageband.
The last thing I could think of is the timbre, the unique sound. Cassette music sounds muddled, like all the instruments are playing over each other. One reason I prefer high quality digital and vinyl records is that the high quality lets me clearly hear all of the instruments and even the tiny imperfections, like Dave Grohl’s fingers sliding against the strings when he shifts along the fretboard. Maybe hipsters don’t want that. Maybe they want a medium that hides minor things like their bands’ lack of talent.
No, this also didn’t make sense, either. If a band was going for that effect, they would alter the production. The Black Keys* couldn’t afford quality recording equipment so they steered into the skid by cranking up their fuzz pedal and creating a style out of lo-fi. They sound great on any medium and are the greatest band to premiere after 2000.
That was it. I was stuck. Every reason seemed legit from a distance but failed after a moment of scrutiny. Cassettes seemed to lose every round to CDs, vinyl and most of all: digital. They only really beat out 8-Tracks. Except cassingles, which are worse than 8-Tracks.
I was ready to let go when a miracle happened. A friend of mine invited me to hang out with him and a friend of his in downtown Austin. This guy was from out of town and wanted to be a tourist for the evening, so we were going to meet at Waterloo Records, which I learned at that moment is a tourist spot. We browsed the store for a while and when it was time to go, the tourist actually bought a cassette tape. Some band I’d never heard of. This was my chance to learn first hand!
Me: “So, why by this on cassette instead of CD or vinyl?”
Tourist: “Oh, I’m not going to listen to this. I already have it on CD and vinyl.”
It wasn’t so much what he said as it was how he said it. Of course he wasn’t going to listen to it! At first, I was shocked but then the answer struck me. You see, I had made the assumption that music was for listening. This man bought the album more as a decoration, like a poster. It all came together. There was no inherent quality to cassettes that hipsters are after, it’s just that the cassettes are not the same. That’s why there is so little nostalgic music but so much niche music on new cassettes. Once you buy it, you’re in, you’re cool. But whether you buy cassettes to be part of the hipster club or buy them to just not be in the mainstream, you’re buying cassettes for other people.
People can debate the merits of CDs or vinyl or wav files but at least the reasons are all for the music. Cassettes only carry the justifications not relating to music. As an alternative to cassettes, I suggest this: Buy your music for yourself. You wouldn’t buy a steak to show off that you eat steak then not eat it. Get the cut you want, then eat your steak. ∎
Oh, and to the hipsters: Next time you want to use an outdated technology to distinguish yourself, I recommend film cameras. They’re a huge pain and no one’s gonna follow you. Not even me.
*Special thank-you to Geek Gone Rogue contributor Amy for introducing me to this band.