Remember the cassette tape? Most definitely if you’re over 25 you’ll probably recall taping songs off the radio, making mix tapes for your friends at high school and loading a battered cassette in a car stereo. The latter still happens quite a bit amongst my social circles, though the attraction of the iPod is ever present.
I’ve started to think about cassettes again. I can’t remember exactly when I stopped using them exclusively, maybe in 2001 when I bought a Discman (that’s a portable CD player!) with a mock-cassette adapter for my car, but then I dropped the Discman in late 2004 and went back to making cassettes for my automotive journeys. Until the car died in 2006, then I bought an iPod. So I think 2006 is the cut off date, really. This is when my practical use of cassettes came to an end, the only thing I’ve had since is a Tascam 424 Portastudio recording station.
I was in the stationary section of the supermarket the other day and saw, amongst the writable DVDs, cheap USB sticks and crappy mp3 players, a tiny section allocated for cassette tapes. “Who buys these anymore?” I thought to myself. I don’t think you can buy Walkmans anymore, or even buy a boombox unit with a cassette deck built into it. I thought maybe the Hipsters and fashionistas could be keeping the market afloat (because the 80s retro market is so awesomely hip right now) but that’s highly unlikely, the availability of cassettes is probably targeted at that demographic with cassette decks still in their cars.
I wonder how far away is the cassette from complete extinction? That time when the last of the TDK 3-packs will be fought over in a street knife fight and a stack of cellophane wrapped CR-O2 premium Maxells surface on eBay. As I think about this the Compact Disc is continuing to die a steady death in the wake of the digital music market. I look out of the living room window and see discarded CDs hanging from our grapevines to ward away birds like some kind of defence drone you would see in classic era Dr Who. A hanging cassette shell would not only be completely impractical, it would look just far too arty.
About two years ago the cassette got poached by pop culture and its symbolism was subsequently canonised on t-shirts, on music shows, in magazines and on soft drink cans (I recall seeing this in the Bohemian quarter of Dresden in 2008).
This keeps the medium sustained for a brief period based on symbolic appeal (the 8-track never looked that cool) but that’s about it, it will never be given the same renewal of vinyl records – can you imagine buying the latest release on a cassette and digging the tiny sleeve notes out? Not unless you’re an obsessive completist bent on procuring everything from an artist. It doesn’t come close to having the appeal of a vinyl records massive sleeve and physical presence, not to mention the far superior sound quality (amongst other things).
I still use cassette tapes on an infrequent and singular basis – for the aforementioned Tascam 424 Portastudio, as I record a sound texture onto a cheap Sony cassette and play it back into my laptop, emphasising the hiss of the tape. My usage has been reduced to exploiting the medium’s artifacts, similar to the way UK artist Philip Jeck treats his stacks of battered vinyl records. I imagine a morbid analogy of exhuming a corpse for the purposes of disease research or extracting DNA from a bug trapped in resin. My dwindling collection of cassette tapes sit in my studio awaiting the next experiment.
I look forward to the future and fondly remembering the cassette. If I ever have kids I’ll probably tell them (or somebody else’s kids knowing me) how in order to listen to a song again I would have to memorise roughly how long it would take to rewind back to the beginning or how the process of making a mix tape was such a labour of love. Especially if you were making it for someone you really liked – I know I took to the many hours hunched over a tape deck with a kind of romantic martyrdom, slaving away at the record and stop buttons, agonising over my choices. It’s so much simpler these days with iTunes playlists and alike, but that’s a post topic for another day…
My eulogising probably comes across sounding old, but the cassette feels important to me – it represents a period in my life and it certainly shaped my listening habits and approach to experiencing music. Right now I feel like going to the supermarket and buying out their complete stock, so that in 20 years timing in the brace of middle age I can tell the youngsters (in a demented manner, no doubt) about the cassette tape and how it shaped a nugget of my lifetime.