by Marshall Bowden
When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.
I mean, it’s no secret that things are in the crapper. Everything is on fire, literally and figuratively.
So we turn to things that bring us comfort.
You heard me. Cassette tapes, those plastic cartridges that house magnetic tape that can be played on a cassette player/recorder. They are making a comeback, just like their cousins, vinyl records. And at first blush, that seems pretty difficult to comprehend.
I mean, the reasons for the return of vinyl as a viable medium for the storage and distribution of recorded music are clearly about the sound quality first and the culture (or cultures, because there are more than a couple of types of vinyl lovers) second. Vinyl remains because it provides a different listening experience, one that is more direct and nuanced than digital media.
But cassettes? No one ever argued for the sound quality of cassette tapes. I mean, how they sounded definitely depended on what you recorded them with and what you played them on. I had a JVC cassette deck that I used to record off our family stereo system, and records that I recorded sounded good on that system and most others.
But many folks were using boom boxes or other portable setups to record and play their tapes. And a lot of people were buying pre-recorded cassettes of their favorite albums, and these generally sounded like shit as well as being cheaply made, thus ensuring their eventual breakage or malfunction.
CDs brought the death of the cassette more effectively than that of the vinyl LP. Though the vinyl market took a dive as CDs grew in popularity, cassettes were completely replaced by a superior product. Every advantage that cassettes had–portability, it was less fragile than vinyl, it could be used to record your own music–CDs had, with the promise of better sound quality to boot.
So why bring cassettes back at all? For one thing, they came along later and they represent, to a different generation, many of the same feelings of nostalgia and a more direct experience of the music that vinyl represents to aging boomers and younger millennials alike.
The cassette culture of the ’80s was perfectly timed to be the nostalgic media trip of choice for Gen X. Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979 when the youngest members of this group were around 14. Even though CDs were already offering the promise of providing much better sound (which wasn’t necessarily true at this point), being less expensive (which never happened) and providing convenience, which became music industry code for taking something away from consumers while giving them the ability to hear the music they liked everywhere–even with all these selling points a significant number of music fans rebelled into cassettes.
Cassettes create an archival culture that is readily accessible to anyone because the entry costs are so low. Cassette player/recorders are not expensive, and neither are the tapes themselves. An indie band in Costa Rica can record an album of material and release it on cassette via the internet and end up selling copies to fans in San Francisco, Des Moines, Paris, and Kyoto.
Cassette tapes were integral to the spread of the Grateful Dead’s taper culture, where fans were allowed to tape shows if they bought tickets to set up in a certain area known as a ‘taper’s section.’ The tapes that were made of every live Dead show were often of surprisingly good quality and they were inexpensive to duplicate and share (trade) with other Deadheads. Part of the Dead’s taper culture was that tapes were traded, not sold. Cassette tapes helped support what became an ecosystem for Dead fans.
When punk rock came along it became another subculture for whom cassettes were an important point of dissemination. Cassettes fit perfectly with the DIY, lo-fi profile of punk and a number of bands started to make and distribute cassette tapes of their songs or live club performances via cassette. For many bands studio time, production time, and the pressing of records, the printing of jackets and distribution of the product was out of their league both financially and experientially.
The recording industry never fully embraced cassettes. If recorded directly from a clean vinyl copy via a stereo receiver or pre-amp to a high-quality cassette tape, the resulting copy is more than adequate in terms of fidelity to consider it a pirated copy. Records were expensive, and so people recorded and shared the music they loved with friends. Some of those people may have purchased LPs, CDs, or pre-recorded cassette versions of the album, but they also might have been perfectly happy with the pirated copy. In a reaction that foreshadowed the industry’s reaction to file sharing and downloading music, they launched a campaign against home taping aimed right at their customers.
Home Taping Is Killing Music they proclaimed in industry publications and on the inner sleeves of records. Then came the innuendo of threat that ‘it’s illegal.’ None of this was particularly compelling to the average music fan. It had not escaped their notice that big record companies, now becoming part of still bigger entertainment and media corporations, seemed to be raking in cash and that the price of records was higher than ever. Bands were spending months in the studio on their latest records, and the parties never seemed to end.
Cassette tapes, boom boxes, and the Sony Walkman had given people something they really wanted that had not been possible in the past. It gave them the opportunity to listen to their own soundtrack. For the music industry, it was the beginning of the culture of personalization. People could record songs in whatever order they liked, hear individual songs and create a grouping of songs (‘mixtape’) that were meaningful to them. They could create a tape of favorite songs and then dub copies of the cassette to give to all their friends.
They were not about to let the music industry stuff that genie back into the bottle, so an uneasy truce was struck and cassettes were here to stay.
ROIR (Reachout International Music) was launched by Bob Cooper in 1979 as a cassette-only music label. ROIR’s releases included reggae, avant-garde, industrial noise, New York punk and No Wave and, perhaps most notably, Washington D.C.’s Bad Brains, a mix of hardcore punk rock and reggae whose debut recording is still one of ROIR’s bestselling recordings. Run by Cooper’s sons since his death, much of the label’s catalog is available on vinyl, CD, and digital download via Soundcloud.
In July of 1980, the Malcolm McLaren produced group Bow Wow Wow released the world’s first cassette-only single, or ‘cassingle.’ Titled ‘C-30 C-60 C-90 Go!’ the song was an ode to the joys of taping songs off the radio and vinyl records and listening to them on the go. EMI, the band’s label, refused to promote the song because it appeared to promote music piracy outright with lyrics like
It used to break my heart when I went in your shop
And you said my records were out of stock
So I don’t buy records in your shop
Now I tape them all ’cause I’m ‘Top Of The Pops’
The introduction of the cassette tape to the mass market was a trial run for the music industry in terms of how they would handle future, deeper disruptions in their business model. There were plenty of lessons there for anyone who cared to look, but mostly cassettes proved to be a minor threat to the industry in terms of lost sales, and so the lesson that one simple innovation could rock the industry was quickly forgotten.