I plan to publish a new heartscore-album in 2018 and actually I am a bit torn between the available media, so I take the chance to discuss the Pros and Cons of CD, Vinyl and Audio Cassette. Or are there more options in 2018?
The Audio-CD: The decline of the CD is obvious. On every corner musicians and magazines bury the formerly beloved medium. If you want to be a cool and contemporary artist you should avoid the CD like a deadly virus: You will loose all credibility ignoring the true analogue warmth and the physical value of vinyl records and audio cassettes. A CD contains just ones and zeros and its actual worth seems comparable to a download or stream. In my own opinion a CD still offers a high artistic value, if the people would still accept it, but nobody does. Looking back on the transition from vinyl to CD during the eighties I can still remember the advantages: From an objective view the CD offers superior sound-quality. Nostalgic listeners might praise the cracks and noises of the vinyl-record, the narrowed frequency-spectrum, or the slight background-hiss and oscillation of a cassette, but in fact it’s very hard to defend those “unique” qualities. With today’s vast possibilities of audio-manipulation you can easily add an analogue sound to digital audio. Just look at this fancy Vinyl plug-in of the famous Waves-company. It can make your song sound as if it was played back on Vinyl. To open a well-made CD-package, maybe a stylish Digipack with a full colored booklet, could give the consumer the same feeling of a magic ritual as to set up a record-player or insert an audio cassette, but why it leaves them unsatisfied?
I see two reasons for the damnation of the CD: First there is now a generation, which spend its youth with Vinyl and cassettes and isn’t it nice to feel young again? And most of those people can afford now, what they could probably not afford, when they were young. Second the digital soul of the CD ringed the death-bell for the worth of music. CD-Rs made the factory-CD less attractive, because you could copy it without any loss and at the same time Warner, Sony and the other giants missed the opportunity to pack CDs with attractive additional content. I still remember the beginning of the CD-era. They sold us unloving packed CDs in Jewel cases. The booklets hardly contained more than credits printed in black and white. Much later (too late) they understood to fulfill the longings of a fan and cared for an attractive appearance of the CD. Then mp3 hit the world and made music available on sharing clients and download platforms. And today the whole history of music is available on everybody’s cellphone, paid and unpaid. The simple reason for this catastrophe was the decision to make music digitally available. By this step the music industry gave away a professional quality to the consumer. They pulled their ace out off the hole and they had just one. Music on CD is now not “worthy” anymore, because the music is delivered digitally. “Digital” became a synonym to “Worthless”. In the moment, when consumers could rip audio-CDs and burn selfmade music-media, the creative output of musicians and composers was made available free. It happened with the change from analogue media to digital media and though listeners are nowadays willing again to pay for music, there happened a significant drop regarding the worth of music. While twenty years ago a consumer had no other choice than to buy expensive vinyl-records, today the customer of the new streaming-companies might more think this way: “I can get everything free; I just want to pay a little bit to be on the legal side”. The listener is not paying anymore to reward the artist or the record-company, he pays to get out off the “grey area” of Youtube-uploads and the “red area” of filesharing. Behind this biggest interest everything else, the artist and his music, gets lost. To sum up today’s bad condition of the medium CD is not so much caused by its usability or quality (The CD still outperforms streaming quality), it’s mostly caused by its bad image. But there are still many CD-players outside and also (older) people, who still buy them.
The Audio Cassette: Regarding the cassette we can not seriously discuss audio quality, though some people argue, that even an audio cassette can satisfy critical ears played back with the help of a Nakamichi Dragon deck. Therefore I only waste one sentence to state, that there must be other reasons behind the cassette revival. From a listener’s perspective I can not find many advantages: The audio-quality is worse. There is not much space to present an elaborated cover artwork or beautiful booklets. In a long run the cassette will loose audio-quality with every single use and far worse compared to a vinyl record. At last not many people will still have a cassette recorder at home, even in cars the cassette recorder is getting outdated. Modern cars will automatically sync with your smartphone (and you remember, on the smartphone is the whole music history).
But from an artist’s perspective (Hey, I call myself an artist, I am megalomanic) there are many advantages. The most important advantage might be, that a cassette is actually cool and attractive for the potential listeners. May I hate the cassette as a medium myself I can not overlook this fact. Second a cassette edition can be produced much cheaper than vinyl and even cheaper than a CD-edition. I became aware of the cassette-revival for two reasons: First I observed more and more bands on bandcamp releasing cassette-editions. On Bandcamp, where I skip often through new releases, I observe a fast rise of the cassette. Bandcamp can be called the home of niche-music, music, that doesn’t fit so well into the glamorous world of Spotify- and Apple-success. And because I would put my own music into the category “niche-market” it seems to be a logical step to choose the favorite medium of the underground-scene. There are even many labels outside, which are specialized in cassettes. While some genres like “Techno” prefer Vinyl or Digital productions, Metal, Noise and Experimental Electronic are the forerunners of the cassette-revival. My own music fits into all three genres. Especially Metal can look back on a long tradition of tape-trading most popular in the beginning of the eighties, when the first tapes of Metallica and others were spread around the world and jumpstarted the career of many bands. And it’s not a wonder, that Metallica reissued their “No life til’ leather”-Demo on cassette. I would be able to reach another kind of audience with a cassette-release and one, which I had neglected so far. I am actually active on Twitter and stumbled upon the account of iheartnoise , which is dedicated to noisy alternative and avantgarde bands, and became very impressed by the lively community of cassette-lovers there. Next I started to read many articles about the phenomenon.
Very motivated to publish cassettes myself (because I also want to be cool) I skipped through some auctions of famous cassette-recorders on ebay thinking on dubbing tapes myself at home. Soon I wondered, that prices for the most thought after machines have raised significantly. I looked first at the two giants of cassette-recorders, Revox and Nakamichi, and was shocked about the prices. A Revox B-215 will still sell for around 800 Euros, while the holy grail, the Nakamichi Dragon, can be sold for almost 2000 Euros. But if you look on less well-known recorders you can get very decent devices for around 300 up to 400 Euros. However, if you want to go the professional way, you will order your batch from a dedicated cassette-duplication company, where the tape is recorded before it is wrapped on cassettes and is cut to the exact length of the album. Services for cassette duplication can be found mostly in the United Kingdom (Therefore I guess the trend is popular there), for an example bandcds.co.uk and tapeline offer good value for the money and many sophisticated options. On the other side of the world I found mobineko in Taiwan (but with offices in UK and USA), which can convince with a sleak and comfortable web-design. And also in my own country Germany you can find a cassette-duplication called Tapemuzik, but the prices seem higher than in the U.K. and to be honest I can not recognize a cassette-revival in germany, though I am in contact with many musicians.
To sum up before I put a few hundred dollars into a high end cassette recorder (which has to be serviced maybe to function properly) I will order a small amount of pre-recorded cassettes from one of the mentioned companies.
I have already told you, that in my opinion the CD outperforms the cassette regarding audio-quality, but this is not the total truth. From a listener’s perspective there are also some advantages of the old medium:
It forces the listener to consume the album as a whole, because it’s much harder to skip tracks. I still remember on the times of vinyl and cassette, when you enjoyed an album in its full glory. The technique made it hard to skip tracks, whether you had to raise the needle and try to hit the desired track on vinyl, or if you had to fast-forward or rewind a cassette-tape. The easier it was to skip tracks, the more listeners tended to jump to their favorites. Back in the eighties a scene comes to my mind: I met with some friends to listen to a Wagner-opera. We had chosen the apartment of the friend with the best stereo-system. But this close friend had also a remote-control and a CD-player and to show off his advanced system he often skipped through parts of the opera to reach some most impressive scenes. I was annoyed, because the dramatic curve of the opera was destroyed and my admired composition of Richard Wagner was pulled to pieces. Had he stood up from the sofa and fought with a vinyl-player to find those specific parts of the opera? Likely not.
The cassette with its limited frequency-range and possibly slight Tape-artifacts add a unique vibe or mojo to the audio. The CD is praised for pristine audio quality and I think nobody would doubt, that the CD or even digital formats with higher resolutions sound better than Vinyl or cassette from an objective view. However many listeners prefer the special analogue sound. Besides the joy of handling a physical product I think, that the fans of the old-fashioned types of media look for something different than plain frequency range and noiselessness. A Vinyl-record and a cassette add special tonal filters to audio. The narrower frequency-range, the artifacts caused by slightly changing speed and the higher noisefloor create a more mid-focused, warmer and somehow “lively” sound-experience. Maybe these behaviors can be related to the Live-concert. If you attend a Live-concert the music is embedded into noise: The audience creates noise, maybe an airplane is crossing the sky above the hall. So the music is never alone, but experienced within a lively acoustic environment. On the opposite side a studio-recording in CD-quality without any other noises could sound “dead”. However digital effects can add these magic components to digital audio as I stated above.
The cassette-movement started also as a sort of protest against streaming. Streaming means playlists, fast skipping of tracks, short attention-spans, while cassette means attentive listening and attention to details. The experience of music is different depending on the chosen medium. While streaming became the working-class medium, more intellectual listeners are searching for niche-music. In my opinion the established acts are presented and sold today with streaming. People like Ed Sheeran, Beyonce and Taylor Swift are consumed by the mass of the listeners and the mass is using their cellphones with headphones, listening to playlists custom-tailored for their individual situation. I don’t believe, that the majority of listeners today is still album-orientated. It’s more about single tracks. The advanced listener (Don’t get me wrong, I am not against good Pop-music), which is searching for Underground-Metal, will avoid Spotify (though you can find there also many Underground-bands). He wants to support a band directly, because he is informed and already aware of the ridiculous revenue-shares for independent-artists on Spotify. He also doesn’t want to wear the white apple-headphones, a symbol of the successful young upper class. Could you imagine a tattooed Death-Metal-guy with headphones and an Iphone X? More likely he will drive a vintage car, self-painted matte-black, with a built-in cassette-recorder.
Production costs of cassettes are much lower than vinyl, though vinyl is sold for a similar price. Here we come to an obvious advantage of cassettes: The production-costs are much lower compared to Vinyl and even compared to CD. For my actual album I had calculated the costs of an edition of 100 pieces for all three different media. While the costs of a Vinyl-production are around 1500 Euro depending on the desired print-material, a CD-edition would cost around 500 Euro. But on cassette I could get along with 200 or 300 Euro. If you now think on the resale-price you will easily understand, why so many bands produce cassettes actually: They can make much more money with it. On the other hand a Vinyl-production can often generate a loss for emerging artists.
Vinyl: This is still the king of the analogue audio-formats. What I said about the cassette is also valid for the Vinyl-record except two or three advantages and one big disadvantage. First Vinyl is blessed with great audio-quality, but the audio-quality is very dependent on the equipment. With a high-end record-player set up perfectly and switched on exactly at the next appearance of the Halley’s comet you can come close to digital audio. Vinyl is widely accepted by a bigger audience than cassettes. At last its image is very positive, maybe a bit decadent. Who can set up a record-player at home and buy expensive Vinyl? From an artist’s perspective the biggest advantage is still the size and its ability to present artwork. An elaborated cover-artwork looses much of its power squeezed on a CD, and even more on a cassette. The big disadvantage for the artist are the costs and for a less known artists the investment will hardly pay back.
Are there ways besides CD, Cassette and Vinyl? Most people buy vinyl and cassettes just as a trophy. Another weird fact about physical editions is, that many buyers of Vinyl and Cassettes hardly use them in daily life, but store them as collectibles and listen to the music on digital devices. Therefore most Vinyl and Cassette-releases come with a download-code. So the modern music-lover holds and touches and pets the physical item, while listening to the digital audio-file on his Ipod or Computer? I scratch my head. But this method is providing best of both worlds: Enjoy the feel and look of the physical product and take advantage of the digital audio at the same time and fulfill your wishes for highest comfort and deepest emotional experience of music. This is clever.
Of course you can follow the easy route and publish music only as a digital download and streaming, but beware, there are some pitfalls: First remember, that digital is meanwhile a synonym to worthless and do you want to put a sticker “worthless” on your work? Second if you want to send Demos around the world there are still magazines and critics, who will not accept anything but an official released CD. Third I think a real fan want something physical, something to get in touch with you, and you can take the word “touch” literally.
I wrapped my brain also around alternative concepts. A most interesting way out off the loss-area was developed by the Canadian label Pentagon Black, the label behind the band The Famines
The two heads behind the label, Raymond Biesinger and Drew Demers, release music on beautiful pieces of paper including a download-code. This is also a way to fulfill the desire for a physical item (the hunter-gen of collectors) and at the same time the comfortable handling of a download.
The cassette is the coolest medium today, and at the same time the cheapest. These are the main reasons for me to publish a small cassette-edition in 2018. But that’s probably not all. You remember, artwork can not be presented well on a cassette. And maybe there are still some people, who want a CD. Maybe both, Cassette and CD? Or something totally different? I will soon tell you something concrete …