What’s the use of cassette tapes in the time of Spotify?

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What keeps the little magnetic underdog alive and kicking? Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The resurgence of the cassette tape is more than a matter of nostalgia. Tapes had the perfect formula for mass distribution: portable, affordable, and ephemeral. They gave countless people the first taste of auditory democracy-slash-anarchy through curating playlists, recording demos over answering machines, and bootlegging the next hot single off of NU 107. It’s in the format’s nature to be distributed freely even as copies of copies of copies, spliced and served with hiss and pop on top. In short, it was meant to be for everyone, by everyone.

This spirit of D.I.Y. freedom carried onto digital compact disks, but the cassette was arguably the last commercially available analog format. Now, internet streaming services like Soundcloud and Spotify serve the same aim and reach a larger audience. Because recorded music no longer needs a tangible release to be popular, there’s been a shift in the value of cassettes: tapes are now special objects that are treasured, both due to and in spite of the wow and flutter. Their audience has narrowed from the general public to a niche group of collectors.

IMG_3269.jpg Tapes had the perfect formula for mass distribution: portable, affordable, and ephemeral. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Then again, medium’s affinity with the underground has always run deep. This time around, the worldwide movement standing in defiance of the format’s obsolescence is United Cassettes. Its Philippine branch occupies a nook in Spindle Hole Records, a community store in Makati shared by a handful of small shops. It’s clear that loving attention to detail was given to the tapes, each of which bears a sticker with a handwritten description. They carry a diverse selection of genres, from bedroom beat producers to obscure noise and crust punk acts.

“It’s not dead. This is my statement of rebellion,” declares Kurvine Chua, the 24-year-old owner of United Cassettes Philippines. To put things into perspective, at the time he was born in 1994, cassettes were losing out to compact discs, which were touted with the marketing slogan “Perfect Sound Forever” for their supposedly superior fidelity. It’s befitting that he stands an advocate of our imperfect analog predecessors and their future.

IMG_3291.jpg The Philippine branch of the worldwide cassette movement, United Cassettes, is run by 24-year-old Kurvine Chua, who sells his tapes out of a nook in Spindle Hole Records in Makati, as well as through an online store. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Debates about digital versus analog have been run to the ground. Within analog, the vinyl record remains superior to tape in terms of fidelity and durability, and its sales have even overtaken that of CDs in recent years. What is it, then, that keeps our little magnetic underdog alive and kicking?

“What I love about cassettes is that you get the analog experience but you don’t have to spend as much getting records pressed,” says Chua. The cost of vinyl is prohibitive; it requires specialized remastering specifically for analog and a large capital for pressing and shipping. The minimum quantity alone of at least 300 copies from some pressing plants may be too much of an investment of time and money for an emerging independent act to handle.

Producing tapes, on the other hand, requires less money, especially if an artist is up for going D.I.Y., which presents its own demands. For Chua’s independent label Genjitsu Stargazing Society, he records straight from a tape deck hooked up to his laptop. Each tape is hand-dubbed one at a time, from side A to B.

“I have to listen to it again and again and again,” he says. Even if the labels and stickers are printed professionally, he assembles it himself. The meticulous attention needed to maintain a standard of quality both in recording and packaging the tapes means that his label’s releases come in limited print runs of usually 10 copies or less.

“Definitely they’re a bit more expensive than how cassettes were sold back in the day. That’s usually one complaint I get from people,” admits Chua.

IMG_3169.jpg The tapes at United Cassettes are often personally crafted by independent label owners or the musicians themselves, which speaks of the D.I.Y. culture present in the reemerging cassette scene. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

The means by which cassettes were made two decades ago were wildly different. These tapes at United Cassettes weren’t produced by the thousands on an assembly line; they’re often personally crafted by independent label owners or the very musicians who made the music. Chua takes great effort to make sure that isn’t taken for granted, while maintaining that the tapes stay affordable.

It’s not just the music that’s eclectic, either: the tapes come in all sorts of colors. Pamcy’s “Piso Isa” is beige with a rainbow sprinkle sticker. Disabuse and Commit Arson’s split release follow in the tradition of striking black and white punk imagery. A lot of tapes also feature art by local artist Zom Kashwak. In the past, other local musicians like the math rock band tide/edit put their own spin on tapes with a limited edition USB cassette of their 2014 album “Foreign Languages,” a nod to the physical object but a response to the fact that players are no longer widely available. The physical packaging of tapes is a platform with endless possibilities.

“That’s one of the beauties of tapes,” says Chua. “It’s connected to stuff like the zine culture.” In the spirit of zines and independent publishing which bypasses gatekeeping institutions, the worldwide cassette network operates without having to conform to the mainstream sensibilities of major labels in America and the U.K., which have dominated popular music history for decades. Many local musicians have tapes released by labels from Detroit to Indonesia, such as Mellow Fellow and Teenage Granny respectively. It branches out into other regions of the Philippines too.

IMG_3065.jpg The aural hiss and static of tape itself complements a lot of lo-fi acts that welcome the format’s flaws as strengths that complement their D.I.Y. mode of production. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Struggle Records in Bicol carries a lot of tapes by Camarines Sur bands. Its head, Fransis Pransis, sources the tapes from a nearby Chinese store in the city. Blank tapes in provinces tend to be cheaper than those in Manila, and are produced in a similarly D.I.Y. fashion.

"Tape is alive and well here in Naga city, mostly from punk bands,” says electronic producer Victor Andrada, who goes by the name ビクター MKII. While he claims that he doesn’t have a lot of listeners in his hometown, the first run of his tape “Omoide [Memory]” sold out quickly, with 20 copies sold domestically and 30 in Japan within the first two weeks.

“The way I look at it from the music I make, it adds a bit of color or character. Not much, but you can definitely hear it. I like it so it doesn’t bother me at all,” he adds.

“I loved the warm quality and the novelty of cassettes,” says Polo Reyes, the songwriter-producer behind Mellow Fellow. It particularly complements his brand of dream-pop. The aural hiss and static of tape itself complements a lot of lo-fi acts that welcome the format’s flaws as strengths that complement their D.I.Y. mode of production.

Many of these tapes were made in home studios with digital recording equipment. While record collectors are particularly skeptical of vinyl records that have used digital recording methods — asserting that it contradicts the point of analog in the first place — cassette enthusiasts seem to be more relaxed. Some sound engineers like Mark Ayuban in Bicol specialize in mastering for vinyl, whereas other independent musicians just dub their digital master recordings as is and let the magnetic tape do the rest.

IMG_3131.jpg Many local musicians have tapes released by labels from Detroit to Indonesia, such as Mellow Fellow and Teenage Granny respectively. It branches out into other regions of the Philippines too. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

The actual fidelity of what a listener hears depends on more than the object alone. Even a tape in pristine condition and top-notch recording won’t sound its best on just any player, and many available cassette players are already secondhand. In response, Chua has cultivated a knack for salvaging old players and repairing them on his own. It’s been a long process of trial and error that he takes on as a challenge. Then again, no form of playback technology so far is free of faults. Even music files downloaded online can be subject to generation loss and degradation.

Given these pros and cons, it now boils down to a matter of preference. It’s unlikely that cassettes are going to reign once more as the main form of musical consumption in the foreseeable future, but one would be remiss to dismiss it too soon. If a listener is willing to invest in a proper cassette player and a collection, it’s up to them; but just in case the tape gets chewed and all hope is gone, at least the case comes with a digital download code.