A grave rock ’n’ roll injustice akin to Vanilla Ice outselling Ice Cube and Christopher Cross topping Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at the 1981 Grammys, cassette tapes have somehow re-emerged as a cultishly popular music format while CDs are falling by the wayside.
Yes, cassettes. Those cheap, flimsy, plastic thingamajigs that warp in the slightest sunlight and require you to press the fast-forward and rewind buttons 25 times if you ever dare to replay a song.
Somehow, cassettes were recently deemed cool again by younger rock ’n’ roll hipsters. This is roughly the same set of trendsetters that also brought back yacht-rock, Billy Idol, Cosby sweaters, cigarettes and sexist rappers.
Indie record shops started stocking used cassettes again in recent years. Urban Outfitters started selling new ones. Indie labels and DIY bands started manufacturing new albums on tape.
Some major acts — including Metallica, Wu-Tang Clan and AC/DC — are even reissuing classic albums as limited-edition cassettes just for Record Store Day, an annual event returning Saturday to indie music shops around the country, including such Minneapolis staples as the Electric Fetus, Hymie’s and Fifth Element.
Meanwhile, the news on CDs is anything but cool for Record Store Day 2018. Sales of discs were down more than 18 percent in 2017. Since they hit their all-time high in 2001, CD sales have dropped 88 percent, from 712 million units to 85.4 million in 2017, according to Nielsen Music.
CD makers got more bad news from right here in the Twin Cities two months ago: Once the biggest retailer of music nationwide, Richfield-based Best Buy announced it will no longer stock discs. Target also lessened its commitment to CDs, with hints of eventually phasing them out.
For my money — and I personally spent a whole lotta paper-route and dishwasher moola on both formats in their heyday — the CD is the outdated format that deserves to come back in vogue. Cassettes should be left in the past.
CDs plainly sound better than tapes. For my ears, the old plastic discs sound better than everything except vinyl LPs, still the preferred format for music nerds and the one bright spot for the recording industry this decade as consumers have otherwise turned in droves to digital streaming services such as Spotify.
Unless you’re willing to invest in high-buck hi-fi equipment, we can all agree that streaming’s audio quality is about as messy as America’s health care system. The only reason to stream music from the internet is the undisputable convenience of it.
Compared with tapes and vinyl, though, CDs are way more convenient. It’s the only physical music format that doesn’t require flipping. Not that flipping is an arduous task. It just inevitably takes me another half-album’s length in time to finally get around to it.
When I listen to CDs at home, I usually load up three or four at once into my multi-disc player — which you can still buy pretty easily, by the way, and for cheaper than many turntables — and let ’er rip. A couple of hours go by before I have to think about what to play next. Best of all, the dwindling demand for CDs is actually one more reason to love them.
Compact discs are often the cheapest thing you can buy in a record store, especially used. The offerings are getting better and better, too, as billions of CDs from the ’90s and ’00s get cleaned out of basements. Used CD bins used to offer nothing but Better Than Ezra, Alanis Morissette, Kriss Kross and the like, but now it’s easy to find any number of Beatles and Beasties or Prince and Queen albums in those bins for under $5.
Who knows, maybe someday old CDs will be coveted by the hipster masses like old vinyl is today? My daughters can clean up on my estate sale if that ever happens.
CDs: Sometimes a little tinny but mostly clear and expansive, especially on stereos.
Cassettes: Weak and underwatery, except for in the right gas-guzzler cars.
CDs: Can still be played in many computers and car stereos.
Cassettes: Maybe your parents still have your old boombox?
CDs: Skip when scratched, especially the ones cheaply manufactured post-1992. But since slim CD sleeves are a dime a thousand nowadays, discs are easier than ever to keep protected.
Cassettes: Do not add water, sunlight or temperatures above a Minnesota spring day or they’ll warp. And pray the actual tape doesn’t get caught and unravel in your deck.
CDs: Admittedly, compiling a cool playlist onto one disc was always a clunkier, more complicated and less soulful process with CDs than with tapes. And Apple/iTunes made it even messier.
Cassettes: But if you’re trying to woo someone with your coolness in 2018, you probably want to think beyond 1982 technology anyway.