I haven’t held a cassette tape in my hands since I was nine years old, yet I’m standing in the middle of The Knitting Factory getting Homeboy Sandman’s cassette exclusive tour tape signed after a show. Time froze as the MC signed my collectible and thoughts of where I wanted to pose it and whether or not I’d ever try to play it again raced through my mind as he handed it back to me. Whether we’re talking about music, movies, books, or games, there’s never been a better ice breaker for a new album than holding the physical in my hands; looking at the cover, feeling its weight, its texture, just to remind myself that what I’m holding exists.
At the same time, I’m equally enamored of being able to hold thousands of songs in the palm of my virtual hand, solely in terms of physical space. In a world where one tastemaker can all but declare the CD dead with a 47-character tweet while another decides to re-release their debut album in a limited edition cassette run, it’s easy to assume that The Physical is destined to transition from industry staple to meticulous novelty sooner rather than later while digital continues to consume all. Even still, our favorite labels/artists are still winding magnetic tape, burning CDs, and pressing wax.
On the more cynical side of things, there’s profit to be had from collecting top coin for limited runs of albums, especially for artists who bring in the lion’s share of their earnings from touring and pushing merch. The only thing more exclusive than tour-specific clothing is tour exclusive music, right? Financial flexing is often a byproduct, but often enough, The Physical serves as an everlasting gift that will always outlast money: commitment.
Rocking with fellow fans at a show and basking in our respective energy reinforces the notion of devotion every time I stake my claim on the lip of the stage. Passion in a message or passion in just rapping your ass off is enough to encapture a fan’s imagination; that and that fly shirt you’ve got on your merch table. But as Sandman himself states on the insert of tour tape, that relationship is a two-way street: “I love rocking live. To me that’s the most essential. Even back in the cro magnon days that’s how they got down. Before any mp3s or cds or cassettes, there was the one neanderthal that got it popping live. So for those of y’all that joined me in the physical, in the flesh, to get it popping in the original timeless format, here’s a little something extra. A little something impossible to get unless I hand it to you myself.” Signed or not, Physicals are moments frozen in time, warped into discs or magnetic strip bound in plastic, a constant reminder of the moment you got them. If you’re lucky, they’ll even be worth money *and* sentiment as time goes on.
Even outside of the live experience, giving fans something physical to meticulously hunt down and hold yields its own pleasures. Etched and/or colored vinyl is candy for the eyes and the ears. The art of burning mixtapes to CDs is as fulfilling for some as it is for the friends or loved ones who can bump them in the whip later. Mello Music Group is currently in the process of re-releasing all of their 2015 projects in limited cassette runs, seemingly to appeal to every taste possible. Even a higher profile artist like Young Thug has gotten in on the vinyl game with a limited deep red run of Barter 6 through subscription service Vinyl Me Please.
But whether you’re copping newly minted limited runs, crate-digging at a local spot, looking for new jams for your car’s CD player, or perusing your favorite musician’s merch table, drenched in sweat, walking away with The Physical is walking away with moments of history in our hands. My music still burns a hole in my pocket, but it looks (and sounds) even better stacked against my wall.