There’s a trend afoot. More and more millennials, among others, are opting to listen to their music the old-fashioned way: on cassettes and on vinyl. While the trend may still be seen as niche, it’s fast-growing and worth watching. However, on the face of it, it’s also somewhat unexpected.
It raises questions like: Why would people spend the same amount of money (if not more) on a medium which is decidedly less portable and, arguably, of lower fidelity than either the previous audio dinosaur—the compact disc—or the most common contemporary medium: compressed digital audio files? Why are people willing to endure the risk of records scratching or cassette players eating magnetic tape when an entirely digital format seems invulnerable by comparison? How is it that analog aficionados have abandoned the free and easy (albeit, often illegal) sharing of audio files via the Internet for a form of music which can only be shared by actually handing over a piece of plastic or vinyl?
The reasons given are many. Everything from ‘analogue is warmer and truer to the original than cold calculating zeros and ones’ to ‘cassettes are cool, hiss and all’. However, I wonder if part of the allure is something less obvious. Could it be that at least some of the appeal stems from an attempt to recapture the physical in a digital age?
Music is intangible and ephemeral, perfectly suiting it to digital reproduction. And yet music has the power to move us—literally and figuratively. When we hear certain passages of music, tears may fill our eyes. Other music makes it nearly impossible for us sit still. I’ve seen this time and time again with my three year old daughter. When the right music is pumping, our kitchen is transformed into a dance floor! In other words, although it seems to transcend physical limitation, we almost always respond to music in our bodies.
By demanding greater physical engagement on the part of the listener, analog music mediums highlight the embodied nature of music and point to the embodied nature of human existence. For instance, in order to play a record it’s necessary to lift the lid on the record player, take the album out of the cover, seat it on the peg, choose the proper spinning speed, carefully lift the needle and even more carefully place it on the right grove of the record. By contrast, in order to play an mp3, many current smartphones merely require you to press a button and speak your selection. The former approach, by way of listener involvement, can almost be seen as a physical ritual, the latter is effortless and requires next to no movement.
This should not be seen as an outright dismissal of the digital. Indeed, the advent of digital technology in music recording (and beyond) has brought with it many good things: simplified distribution, a reduction of material waste, and extreme portability. However, as is often the case with the arrival of any new technology, something is lost as well. My sense is that the digital revolution in music can obscure a fundamental aspect of who we are. In Genesis, God breathes life into Adam’s body. Far from being a curse, our bodies are a gift because it is through them that we experience and come to know the world. Whatever the current trend or medium du jour, music will continue to remind us of this.
This post was written by Dave Reinhardt who, long before pursuing a PhD at the University of St Andrews with a focus on the theological significance of embodied expression, consistently made mix tapes and pursued the elimination of tape hiss.
 “The Cassette Makes a Comeback.” 2013. BBC, May 19, sec. Business. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22533522.; Rudser, Lauren. 2011. “Miss the Hiss? Fanatics Flip for Tunes on Cassette Tapes.” Wall Street Journal, October 20, sec. The a-Hed. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204002304576631361693349974.html.