For those of you who haven’t heard, September 7th is the first annual Cassette Store Day. Like Record Store Day, the event is a day when fans of their favorite analog audio format can flock to a participating store for limited runs of albums and singles, get drunk on cheap to free beer, and generally revel in music nostalgia.
But not everyone thinks it’s such a great idea. Corey Deiterman of the Houston Press even crowned Cassette Store Day “the Dumbest Thing Ever” in his August 28th editorial. And while he makes a great point—that CSD is largely a celebration of hipster kitsch—he also uses the opportunity to spread some disinformation both about the supposedly noble underpinnings of Record Store Day and about cassette tapes in general.
To Dieterman, Record Store Day came about for two reasons Cassette Store Day doesn’t share: The propagation of a superior audio format and the support of mom-and-pop record stores. If only that were true. It’s nice to believe Record Store Day is the homegrown movement of audiophiles looking to support small businesses, but in reality, its clientele isn’t much different from that of your local Urban Outfitters.
He goes on to imply cassette tapes were almost irrelevant the moment they came out and were useful only in that they were a portable. “Why were cassettes a thing to begin with?” he asks, “We had vinyl, we had CDs, so what was the point?”
The point was, while there was certainly overlap in cassette and CD technologies, people like me didn’t start using CDs until the mid-1990s. Even then, owning a CD player was to “keep up with the Joneses.” It was a luxury most couldn’t afford, and many of those who could didn’t see the benefit of a medium that couldn’t be recorded over anyway.
Deiterman also states cassette tapes inherently sound “like shit.” Well, guess what? So does vinyl if it isn’t played on properly calibrated equipment. There are no moving parts in digital audio, but there are hundreds in analog audio. With record players, you have idler wheels, belt drives, and counterweights that come with a range of options, add-ons, and adjustments.
If the speed of your idler wheel is off, the platter turns too quickly and distorts your music. If the counterweight isn’t adjusted to match the weight of the tonearm and cartridge, the stylus skates across your record potentially causing permanent damage to both the record grooves and the stylus. And these are just the two most common turntable problems.
Cassette decks have different, but equally temperamental, mechanics—worn belts, misaligned heads, sticky pinch rollers, the list goes on. But all of these can be replaced and adjusted to sound great, as any owner of a high-end cassette deck can attest to. Cassettes also have one big advantage over vinyl: The lowest cost of entry to any analog format. Used decks cost between $10 and $100 while pre-recorded cassettes can cost as little as $0.10.
These benefits carry over to artists as well. Producing albums and singles on cassettes is marginally cheaper than producing them on CDs and much cheaper than producing them on vinyl. I have to admit this surprises even me, but it’s the plain truth. Rainbo Records in Canoga Park, CA, for example, produces cassettes for as little as $0.89 each, but charges $1.00 to produce a CD. To a new artist practicing out of his parents’ garage, an additional $0.11 per pressing adds up.
The best part, however, is the artist’s fans have something that fits in their pocket to take away from a gig. Even if they don’t play the tape, they do have the artist’s “business card.” Slap a web address or a QR code on that sucker (if you want to get fancy), and the artist can also share everything from booking information to Soundcloud playlists.
So Cassette Store Day isn’t quite the dumbest thing ever. In fact, it’s no dumber than Record Store Day.