The Cassette Sideshow

If there’s anyone that know a thing or two about dead music formats, it’s Techmoan. Aside from the (lack of) bragging rights that come from knowing about him back when he was still playing with spy cameras, I’ve always enjoyed his way of digging through That Which Cannot Be Played Any Longer, no matter how obsolete.

I can’t say his most recent video (as of writing this) has made me all that pleased, unfortunately. It’s as much his fault as his puppets’ faults, so I can’t really say it’s something with his video. In fact, what’s in the video is exactly what I like seeing, it’s just the way it’s phrased that gets me: physical media being considered a novelty, a “promotion”, something to play second fiddle to streaming.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a neat video. I just don’t think it’s fair to treat MiniDisc like a novelty. Or CD, for that matter…

So let me get the acknowledgements out of the way before my incredibly unpopular opinions on how music should be listened to: streaming is great. Streaming has enabled anyone to be turned onto any kind of music in an instant, for cheap, from anywhere there’s internet. I use Spotify to try new music and you probably do too. Tools are tools.

Here’s where I differ. I don’t keep albums on Spotify, I buy them on CD when I’m sure I wanna keep it and listen to my CD and its rips afterwards. I think of physical media in a utilitarian sense first and as neat gimmicks second. I like holding stuff I can listen to, stuff I’ll be able to keep and treasure no question.

I’ve talked with people who are big proponents of streaming, and they talk about it like it’s a grand freeing of the minds and closets: “I don’t miss ripping CDs. I don’t miss syncing my devices. I don’t miss juggling a music library. I like having it all right in one app.” It’s hard to argue with the convenience of Spotify, isn’t it? I mean, do you miss all those things, mari?

To answer that, I can’t miss what I still do, but more importantly, convenience shouldn’t negate ownership. I don’t trust Spotify. You shouldn’t either. Spotify is a huge corporation working as a middleman with other big corporations to provide hoarded IP to people who consume said hoarded IP. To this end, in our desire to have the most amount of music in one place, we’ve given up the genuine joy of holding a CD or a tape in our hands with a booklet containing lyrics and reading material that we’re free to do whatever we will with.

Physical ownership of an album is a novelty now. Actually getting the music doesn’t much matter, as we’re already allowed access to the record on a streaming service or given a download code at checkout. Artists are increasingly skipping the physical release entirely since “they just don’t sell enough”.

As seen in the video, genuinely good and still plenty listenable formats are also now a cute novelty. The people who still buy vinyl? They’re not doing it to listen to an album as it was intended, how it was initially mastered and sequenced. They’re doing it because it’s cool and retro and will most likely put the jacket up to display as “big album art” and go right back to listening to the Spotify copy. (Assuming the album was even originally meant for vinyl; double disc sets with three songs a side are the bane of my existence and I will never buy another again.)

Spotify is genius because it’s taken advantage of the most exploitable aspect of human psychology: gibs me dat. It’s enabled people to save hundreds of albums, never once really giving them much attention or thought, allowing them to lie awash in ads, notifications, and other distractions that prevent people from just sitting down and giving an album 45 minutes of their fucking time. All for just $10 a month. When they really wanna “show their support”, they’ll do the bugman thing, buy the product, and continue to consume the product through the easy, low-effort, low-reward avenue of streaming if they haven’t already moved on anyway. It’s essentially rewarding not exploring whatsoever. It’s easy-to-ignore mood music.

People treat Spotify as it was a boon to artists; that’s the common thought, right? Cut out the store, cut out the middleman, get stuff to consumers directly? Only on Spotify, they’re not listening to you. They’re listening to Billie Eilish. They’re not digging past the playlists, they’re not exploring your album beyond wallpaper music and name recognition. Spotify is the new gatekeeper. Not to mention the way artists continually try to game the system on Spotify in the name of streams, streams, streams. Spotify is as much a game as end-caps and T-shirt bundles, only you’re not paying attention since it’s not in front of you.

I haven’t even gotten into the problems with Spotify as a concept. Songs and albums disappears from it all the time. Wanna kill circulation of an album for 95% of people? Take it off Spotify. It’s breaking news when Tool gets on Spotify after all these years because withholding music from a platform is as simple as saying you don’t want it available anymore. You do not own anything, again, and your consumer rights can get fucked as a result. If you’re a hardcore fan of an artist, there is undoubtedly something of theirs you can’t find on Spotify. For Silversun Pickups, it’s the Let it Decay/Working Title 10″. Let’s hear yours.

A physical release in general should still be the baseline for anything I’d actually want to keep, and fun little details should be fun little details. Don’t get me wrong, getting creative with it is something I adore; it’s the attention to detail in a physical release that makes an already creative album pop out among a sea of them coming out on the daily. I’ve seen a ton of modern vinyl releases (naturally priced at $50-60 a pop) drop with paper sleeves to hold the record and not even a lyric insert. It’s shameful and lazy, frankly, but it’s better than nothing.

Short of it is, monkey brains like holding real things. CD-Rs are cheap and easy to burn. Tapes can get duplicated. Custom packaging is creative and fun. Hell, personalizing albums isn’t much of a stretch at that level. For a bigger artist, physical releases should be even less of a deal, and labels are chomping at the bit to find creative ways to grab people’s attention.

And how about getting creative with it? Remember when Garbage had all the singles for their first record done up in custom etched and rubber sleeves? Remember when Marilyn Manson released his album on purple PlayStation discs? How about adding proper reading material in there to go along with the music? How about illustrations that complement the album’s themes and tones? How about enhanced CDs, remember those? Nice little extras that justify the physical release beyond the novelty. Albums can be proper experiences that transcend the mere musical.

For artists, a creative rollout can be more than just a way to get your album in the press. Sequencing and mastering an album for the medium in question can create a wholly different dynamic than just duplicating the Spotify listing, but on two sides. For fans, it can turn their attention back to the tangible and add an extra something special to perhaps an already busy collection. At the very least, if I like your album, I want to be able to buy more than FLAC files.

And if someone doesn’t appreciate the reading material, that’s swell, let them continue to not appreciate it, but I obsessively catalog my record collection, paying attention to pressings and versions and bonus tracks, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Physical media is far more than a novelty, and if no one can see that, I’ll continue to enjoy my $2 a pop used CDs and first pressing 70s vinyl that I’ll own forever. Not like I don’t still have decades worth of music to get through…

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