I Let My Tape Rock ’til My Tape Popped: Music and Media in the 21st Century

By Bill Caraher

A couple weeks ago my friend David Haeselin posted a nice review of Deerhunter’s Double Dream of Spring on the North Dakota Quarterly page. I’ve listened to the album, and I can’t really find much to say about it (and certainly can’t say anything as eloquent as Dave has). For me, the most curious thing about the Deerhunter album is that it was only released on cassette tape.

Cassette tapes have always fascinated me (and some of this, I’ll have to admit, is simple nostalgia). They anticipated in so many ways the release of compact discs, but carried with them some of the same limitations of vinyl records. First, the were portable and ideally suited to mobile playback in such iconic devices as the Sony Walkman and in cars. Second, like vinyl LPs, they were relatively fragile and deteriorated if played regularly (and were susceptible to oxidation over time). Third, it was possible for a tape to sound really good with suitably expensive playback gear and high quality tapes (the final iteration of Dolby noise cancelation for tapes, “Dolby S,” was apparently almost CD quality), but in most cases, tapes sounded pretty bad and, in this way, they reflected the character of vinyl records, which could and can sound divine, mostly didn’t because most records were cut poorly and played back on mediocre equipment. Finally, cassette tapes could be dubbed either completely or into mix tapes initiating an entire culture of dubbed, bootlegged, and pirated content that continued into the CD era and has structured, in many ways, our engagement with online digital music. The streaming playlist is really just an updated version of the mixtape.

Compared the vinyl records and tapes, compact discs represented an amazing leap forward in sound quality, durability, and portability. Deerhunter’s release of a cassette tape reflects the negotiation of a number different affordances and different historical attitudes. On the one hand, cassettes offered a convenient portable medium for distributing their new EP and people who wanted to listen to the music would, at first, be limited to a small group of individuals who had access to working cassette players (generally, people who drive old cars and hipsters). The physicality of the tape itself stood as a immediate barrier to the circulation of the music and a badge of exclusivity. On the other hand, Deerhunter knew that copies of the EP would soon enter the digital realm and circulate widely on forums and Reddits and other places where Deerhunter fans congregated. This would, of course, reinforce, in the short term, access to a community of Deerhunter fans. In this way, releasing an EP on tape parallels the circulation of bootleg recordings prior to the internet which found their audiences in fan magazines, pre-concert festivities, and word of mouth.

About a month after Deerhunter released Double Dream of Spring, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their first album as The Carters, Everything is Love. The single from the album was titled “Apeshit.” Like Deerhunter, the single was released in an exclusive way, but rather than on nostalgia-inducing cassette, on the streaming music service Tidal. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are part-owners of this service, and it claims a significantly greater number of African American subscribers compared to other streaming services. The single itself likewise defied convention in its lyrics and title which would limit its radio play. (The old relationship between the single and the radio seems to be almost completely over, thanks, in part, to the challenging lyrics and popularity of hiphop music.) The lyrics themselves celebrate this flaunting of convention with Beyoncé demanding “pay me in equity” which would certainly resonate with Tidal listeners aware that the service is owned at least partly by artists, many of whom are African American. The iconic music video for “Apeshit”, also premiered on Tidal and its setting in the Louvre emphasizes how the reception of art is mediated by class and race. Unlike the ephemerality of the cassette tape, “Apeshit” stakes its claim to museum quality permanence.

At the same time, Tidal also has its limits. Kanye West released his album The Life of Pablo exclusively on Tidal in 2016 which famously led to wide-spread pirating of the album as fans attempted to get access to the album without paying the service’s fees. West’s departure from the Tidal ownership group has sometimes been attributed to the mishandling of The Life of Pablo launch (and that Tidal owned him money), but its hard to separate that album from the streaming medium which could support its changing list of songs, versions, and order. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the album would have been pirated less had it been released as a conventional download.

Without this little essay devolving to yet another case study of how the “medium is the message,” Deerhunter, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West demonstrate how the current moment in the music industry sees the medium as far more than simply a passive method for disseminating creative works but as the co-creator of the art itself. This isn’t new, of course, as artists have long recognized the relationship between their music and album covers, the color of vinyl, music videos, and even the ironic reminder by Tom Petty “Hello, CD listeners, we’ve come to the point of his album where those listening on cassette or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape.” I do suspect, however, that, today, that the intersection of technological and music has a more explicit relationship with a growing awareness of the significance of fan communities, inequality within the music industry, as well as issues of race and social class.

~

Bill Caraher is editor of North Dakota Quarterly.

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