Cassettes make a comeback
People of a certain age like myself will no doubt recall the beauty of the cassette era. Unlike vinyl before it – which you simply played and enjoyed – with a cassette you could now record songs from the radio, copy your friends’ tapes, and make you own compilations and mixtapes for your loved ones. You could also, probably for the first time, carry your music around with you in your Walkman whilst listening through headphones which back then were composed of small discs of foam and a thin metal headband. If you had a fancy Walkman you could also adjust the EQ bands with three mini-sliders and even play the other side of the tape without having to take it out and turn it over!
Cassettes were cool but they were not without their problems. They would often catch in your Walkman or – worse – your car stereo and you would have to carefully pull the unspooled tape from the machine without breaking it and wind it back on using a pencil. This worked most of the time but would usually result in parts of the tape being twisted over and make the tape either unplayable or leave it with a muffled gap in the song. It was also very easy to crack the plastic casing and the liner notes were usually printed very small. The impact of the artwork was also lost due to its size compared with a 12″ record or LP. The quality was also not that great unless you were a fancy pants and able to buy the chrome metal tapes which offered superior sound and longevity.
In the early 90’s, the cassette commenced a slow death with the dawn of the digital age and flashy shiny CD’s replacing your music collection with the promise of better quality and that they would last forever. In turned out that CD’s were equally as easy to snap and scratch and although not as popular now they are still very much alive in the 21st century. MP3’s and iPods followed after and I imagine most people like myself ended up throwing out most of their old tape collection.
I can totally understand the resurgence and popularity in vinyl due to its use by DJ’s and its far superior audio quality. It is quite surprising however that cool labels large and small such as Stones Throw and Ninja Tune are releasing music in 2013 on cassettes. The quality is obviously not going to be anywhere near as good vinyl or a digital file or but there seems to be something about the lofi analogue sound of a cassette that is pushing forward its renewed success with the younger generations.
I spoke with Urbandy, head of Step Peppers Records who also release their new albums on cassettes. He had this to say:
“I guess the underlying reason tapes make sense is cost. Creating a single vinyl release can be very pricey, but its cheap and easy to produce a surplus of more than one release on tape. Nostalgia plays a big part, but I feel like younger generations inundated with digital find them fascinating just because they are analogue. They are also durable, pocket sized and device-like so they feel somewhat modern. The idea of the ‘mixtape’ is more popular than ever, and I’ve just always loved the lofi sounds you get with manipulating tape.”
I’m also curious as to whether people still own cassette players and whether there is a resurgence in the second hand cassette player/walkman? I am aware that Sony only stopped producing the Walkman in 2010 but am unaware if any other companies are still producing machines. Even the local police force who were heavy users of cassettes for their interviews have recently transferred over to digital recording.
I know that music goes in cycles but I would never have imagined the same would be true of music formats. The question is what will be big next? 8 track cassettes? 78rpm records? Those colourful fake plastic records you used as a kid on your first fisher price record player? Have we just run out of formats for music and therefore are having to look backwards? Maybe it’s time to start up a cassette production company. That gives me an idea for a Kickstarter project…
You can purchase a Step Pepper cassette from here.
Words by 25ThC