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Cassettes and Vinyl: Who Benefits?

It’s Record Store Day, and like others I feel a need to share my thoughts on one particular matter. I will probably repeat what others have said on the topic, but I don’t really express my opinion on these issues. I think we’re all aware of the intention of the day: to support local record stores and the last bastions of purchasing physical copies of music. I don’t think anyone will deny the good intentions behind this. For some indie and local musicians this one of few ways to get their music out there. In an effort to continue to support music stores it feels noble, but I also feel it’s somewhat misguided, namely in supporting local artists by purchasing outmoded forms of music.

One of the arguments I hear is how something like vinyl has overall a better sound quality when compared to something like an mp4 format. I don’t understand the demonizing of newer formats when the evidence is not strong for the comparison. What’s more is these same people will buy an album that was recorded digitally for people to buy as mp4’s. I feel like the chances of the album being of the sound quality those blessed with golden ears ramble about is compromised by the recording process. I also love to point out that when they purchase a re-release of an older album it was most likely digitally restored to bring back that crisp sound they love to describe. Moreover record formats, even for retro formats, isn’t the best way to listen to music. It only beat out hard plastic cylinders –a format which is equal and possible superior to record sound quality –due to better marketing and storage capabilities. I don’t think I’ll see a revival in hard plastic cylinders anytime soon, though, even if it would benefit possibly digitally archiving music from the earlier part of the 20th century.

Then again, the revival of older formats has surprised me and demonstrated how it’s not about the actual sound quality, but the perceived quality. I’m talking about the revival of cassette tapes. When I was younger I did prefer them over CD’s. Now that I’m older and had the pleasure of experiencing different formats I understand why its obsolescence was imminent since its inception. Like wax cylinders it was difficult to store without compromising the quality of the sound, it was easily destroyed, you could record over it without too much difficulty, the listening experience was limited to the quality of the player and quality of the musical product itself. Anyone who dealt with trying to listen to a cassette with a damaged tape knows what I mean. Nonetheless indie artists are selling cassettes of their music. Even some of my former bandmates sell their music on cassette. The fact it’s seeing a revival indicates it’s met with some welcome reception.

In some ways having a hard copy of an independent artist’s work is still helping. For some it’s still a viable way of getting their music out to world and fund their tour or future work. I often see out of town musicians selling CD’s and the occasional cassette. People do buy them at the shows. They’re selling, even if I don’t know to what extent. It’s supporting indie artists in some way.

I believe this is the pivotal issue of stuff like Record Store Day. When I started off in the mid 00’s reviewing music there was a revival in vinyl records. At the time it was hard to find a record player, especially one that worked and was affordable. Folks still purchased the albums with the same dubious arguments of sound quality were made. Those who purchased were supporting indie artists. As the revival continued mainstream labels re-released albums previously on vinyl or they converted previously CD-only formats to vinyl. There was a resurgence is producing record players, but I saw where folks were purchasing more vinyl by mainstream artists than indie ones. Now I’m more likely to see vinyl albums by mainstream artists than indie ones. I’m sure there are other reasons, especially with the cost of producing a hard copy of an album involved. I think, though, if we are buying records to support local record stores we need to also consider buying vinyl of local and indie music. If we’re so willing to support a physical format to create a day for it, we need to also remember the artists who support them.

A bit of an epilogue: in case anyone was wondering I now own a record player. It also has a cassette deck and an 8-track player. You know, just in case.

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