Hitting the Rewind Button and Back in the Groove: Baylor expert muses on quasi-comeback of cassettes, vinyl

  • vinyl pic
    (iStockphoto)
  • Darden
    Robert Darden, Baylor University vintage music expert (Courtesy photo)
Oct. 7, 2015

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WACO, Texas (Oct. 8, 2015) — “Bigger, better and badder than ever before!!!” is how international indie cassette labels are billing Oct. 17 — Cassette Store Day.

On the vinyl record front, Billboard Magazine reported that in 2014, more vinyl albums were sold than in any year since Nielsen started tracking music sales in 1991. That’s — sorry — a record.

And in case you missed it, National Eight-Track Day was April 11, vying for attention with National Cheese Fondue Day.

In the words of the late great Marvin Gaye, what’s going on?

Baylor University’s Robert Darden, professor of journalism, public relations and new media and a longtime champion of vinyl, has helped rescue countless warped and scratched records from “the golden age of black gospel music” to digitize them through Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP). He talks about the vintage-goes-modern music scene.

Q: I read there are international independent cassette labels in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and now even the United Kingdom and U.S. Who’s buying?

A: There is actually a market for new cassettes. Heavy metal bands and their fans are fanning the so-called "low-fi" craze. There is even a full-time cassette-only store in London now. While it wasn’t the greatest vehicle to record music in the world, the cassette had a real advantage over vinyl – you could create your own collections of music. Most cassette players were portable, and the combination overcame the cassette’s audio inadequacies. For the BGMRP, at least one label (Nashboro) released all its best music on cassette for a couple years, so we’re always on the lookout for them. Unfortunately, the cassette is a fragile format and not as many survived as we would have liked.

Q: National Eight-Track Day is special for collectors and nostalgia buffs, and there’s a DIY site for those who want to revive eight-track players. But two eight-track museums — one in Dallas, one in New York — closed in the past year.

A: Eight-tracks, fortunately, are not making a comeback that I’m aware of. It was a transitional technology, bulky, unwieldy, definitely lacking in sound quality, subject to frequent jams and breaks, and difficult to store. Few gospel artists released music on eight-track, for which I’m forever grateful. That said, mint condition eight-tracks of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles’ White Album are worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars to collectors.

Q: I know that for you, obtaining vinyl is crucial to digitizing and preserving gospel music. Many disdain them as old-fashioned, a pain when it comes to storage and scratch-prone. So why are vinyl sales continuing to climb?

A: For older — more "seasoned" — people of my generation, there is certainly the nostalgia factor. This is how we fell in love with music. The LP was the first format that allowed artists to tell a complete story. The 10 to 12 songs were designed and sequenced to be listened to in a certain order. Whether it was The Who's “Tommy” or Willie Nelson's “The Preacher,” vinyl releases were an event. The LP also contained lots of information, whether on the back jacket or in the sleeve, of particular interest to fans — who wrote which song, who played on which song, the lyrics, the dedications. The vinyl LP jacket also spawned a golden age in design. Here was a big, broad canvas, and artists rushed to fill it with some of rock 'n' roll's most memorable images. Finally, there is a sense — not shared by all audiophiles — that a record with a good needle, played through a first-rate sound system sounds better than digital: warmer, deeper, more human.

My hearing isn't what it once was, but I believe I can tell a difference between the two formats. It may be the nearly imperceptible pops and flaws, or it may be the way that the sound is translated through the physical touch of the needle into the speakers to my ears. Regardless, I love the "sound" of a new record.

Among younger fans, all of the above is also true, to lesser or greater degrees. But the greatest growth may be among metal fans. Metal bands release limited-edition versions of their new music on vinyl, as well as digital. And another element may be at play — watching a needle skate across virgin vinyl is infinitely cooler than watching red lights blink on an iPod.

Q: What about new turntables versus those of yesteryear?

A: To get that great audio sound, you must have a quality turntable (belt-driven is the old standard), a relatively new needle (clean them regularly) and speakers (preferably with a woofer for those great vinyl bass tones). On the other hand, if you just want the thrill of an LP playing your favorite, well-loved music, warts and all, any decent turntable will do. Just don't crank it TOO loud — most of the new turntables only have small speakers.

Q: Where’s the best place to hunt for LPs and 45s?

A: If you've got the time, garage sales and used vinyl stores are wonderful places to stumble on long-lost treasures. The new breed of vinyl stores are also fun, although a good percentage of their sales come from expensive re-issues of classic LPs, pressed on virgin vinyl and designed for well-heeled Yuppies with a honed sense of nostalgia.

Q: Is the “return” of vinyl just a passing thing, along with hitting the rewind button, so to speak, on cassettes?

A: I don't think vinyl will ever pass digital in sales, but neither do I think the demand for vinyl will ever quite wane. Never underestimate the "coolness" factor of a shiny black vinyl LP spinning on a turntable, a pristine diamond needle floating over the groove while fans young and old watch and listen. It's positively primeval!

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Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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