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Format Wars

Over those last few years there was no shortage of articles heralding the comeback of a cassette (The Guardian, more recently, but also Pitchfork and LA Times, to name just a few). While its true that cassettes/tapes became a de facto standard for small/indie labels in 2010s, those articles also create a false impression that the format is about to cross over into the mainstream. They also generate a considerable amount of backlash from those convinced that the format should’ve been abandoned a long time ago.

So let us cut through the clutter and the noise surrounding tape and other physical formats (which are far from dead in spite of the popularity of streaming). Here’s a little guide for anyone that runs their own indie label (or considers starting one or an independent artists ) and is unsure of what format to pick, all based on experience we had with our namesake label

 

Tape

Reading: The Art of Cassettes: 5 More Tape Labels That Get It Right

Pros: portable/easy to carry around, low-risk investment compared to vinyl/CDs

Cons: seen as an archaic/outdated format by general public, poor fit as a merch item

 

Common assumption is that there’s one reason to put out new music on tape – and that is to cater to hipsters. The reality is that tapes represent the most low-risk investment of all physical formats. As gimmicky as it may seem, putting out 50 to a 100 tape copies of a record by a promising, but little known new artist beats investing few thousand dollars (and few months of waiting) into a vinyl version of the same (unless, of course, you have money burning a hole through your pocket).

Historical Note – in 2000s CDr started emerging as a common format for small/indie labels (see NY Times article on Smithsonian Folkways from 2003 as a proof). It wasn’t until the arrival of Burger Records in 2008 that tapes  started coming into the picture as a contender.


Vinyl

Reading: Unspooling the Thread: Vinyl and Indie Labels

Pros: high sound quality / preferred choice of audiophiles, well suited as a merch item

Cons: price / production time

 

As stated above – this is thee format you should go for as a label/artist as long as you understand considerable risks associated with production of vinyl.  Namely – it is very expensive to produce and it might also take a couple of months before you’ll see any results as vinyl pressing plants are currently stretched to capacity.

Historical note – the reason why vinyl production became so undemocratic leads all the way back into the 90s. Back then CD was a dominating format and as a result vinyl plants were abandoned. Operating those is not easy, nor do they come affordable, and as of this writing the only option for producing vinyl at home is Phonocut (still in its Kickstarter phase as of late 2019).


CD

Pros: high sound quality, well suited as a merch item

Cons: expensive to produce

 

Rather mysteriously compact discs dropped out of favor with the buying public over the last 10 years or so (Target stopped carrying them, for one). Partially, the blame could be laid on streaming, but streaming also did not affect vinyl sales and the fact remains – few people seem to be open to the idea of buying new music on CD.

Historical note – first introduced by Phillips and Sony, CD dominated the sales for much of the 80s and 90s. With the rising popularity of mp3 format and p2p networks (as well as as a subsequent destruction of the old music business model) this is no longer the case, though some predict the reemergence of the format in the next decade.

 

Conclusion

So what kinds of options does an independent label/artist not tied to a major have as far as physical formats go at the end of 2019?

Tapes – best suited for releases that have a small audience.

Vinyl – best suited for mid to large sized releases/artists.

CDs – inconclusive.Currently out of favor with buying public, but that could change in the near future.

Another format worth considering is MiniDisc, something that our sister label Fish Prints in specializing in. Read a guide on transferring mp3s to MiniDisc that Petridisch wrote for Musics the Hangup blog.


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