Music Made Physical: In Defense of the Humble Cassette

If you were born after the mid-1980s, chances are the word “cassette” will evoke a blank stare. And if you’re older than that, your first thought might be, “Thank goodness they’re gone.” But as we learned with vinyl, a musical format never truly dies: it just acquires a cult following. For example, the Wall Street Journal reveals that a surprising amount of love is still being shown for the humble cassette:

[C]assette devotees say that tapes are underappreciated. They see cassettes following in the shadows of their analog brethren, vinyl records, which are currently enjoying a renaissance.

[...]

Most music lovers don’t miss the hiss, the background noise caused when the tape passes over the playback head. “Listening to a cassette for quality is like driving a Smart Car in the Indy 500,” says Bob Lefsetz, author of a music newsletter and blog, who says the cassette is a poor music medium.

The hiss is part of the magic for cassette lovers. “Tape hiss has the same amount of charm as a little crackle when listening to a record has,” says Mr. Thordarson. “It makes it seem more real.”

Then there’s the smell. “I want them fresh, sealed in the package,” says André Sirois, 31, who hunts for unopened tapes to add to his collection. “I know one day I’ll rip them open and smell that sweet plasticy smell, and I’m going to enjoy how I used to enjoy music, as an old dude.”

I was recently cleaning out the basement when I came across a box of old cassettes, most of them mixtapes that I’d either made for playing in the car or received from various Internet acquaintances as part of the many mixtape swaps I once participated in. There were also several old Christian alternative titles in there — e.g., The Prayer Chain’s Whirlpool EP, Under Midnight’s self-titled debut, My Little Dog China’s The Velvis Carnival — that I listened to religiously (npi) in high school.

And finally, there was the battered old black cassette of Cure songs that my friend Leah gave me as a birthday gift, a formative event in my development as both a music fan and an angst-ridden teenager. Leah was one of the coolest kids I knew in high school — and in our senior year, she was in a car accident and died just a few weeks before her 18th birthday, an event that haunted me long after I graduated. I’d forgotten about that cassette, but upon seeing it again, I realized just how important it had been over the years as a reminder of a very good friend. I haven’t listened to it in almost two decades now, and it’s in such bad shape that I’ll probably never listen to it again for fear of ruining it, but I can never throw it away: too many memories are wrapped around its spools.

Discovering that cache of cassettes was an instant nostalgia rush, but it had nothing to do with their smell. Cassettes, like vinyl, do indeed have a sensorily affecting aspect to them. Like most folks these days, I don’t really miss cassettes themselves — CDs sound better and don’t wear out so easily, and digital formats like MP3s are much more convenient — but I do miss both the physicality and the intentionality that cassettes lent to music. And there was no better example of these aspects than the mixtape process.

Creating a mixtape was an editorial process: You were forced to consider the limitations of the cassette’s sides when compiling your playlist so that you could fit in all of the songs you wanted to share with someone and in the right order. (For the record, I always used high-quality 90-minute Maxell tapes: nothing but the best if you were getting one of my mixes!) You had to carefully consider the recipient: you had no room for filler so you had to think about their tastes and requests. If the recipient was someone you had a crush on, this became even more important: every song on that mixtape had to leave them swooning over your taste, coolness, and thoughtfulness.

You then spent hours hunkered down in front of your stereo, focused on pressing the “Record” and “Pause” buttons at just the right times while, if necessary, fading the volume between songs to create perfect transitions. If you made a mistake, you had to rewind without going too far back lest you overwrote any of the previous song, and then try again — or you just threw away the cassette and started over from scratch. You had to listen to every minute of this process as you were creating your mix (high-speed dubbing was, let’s be honest, a cheat). And finally, you had to write down the song titles on those flimsy little sleeves that blank cassettes came with. (Disclosure: I made most of my tape covers on my dad’s Macintosh LC. They represented some of my first forays into graphic design… and they really sucked.) All in all, it was a task that, in all of its frustrating and painstaking glory, just can’t be duplicated in this day and age of iTunes playlists.

At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I realized, as I was cracking open those plastic cases for the first time in at least a decade, how much I missed those things. I was reminded of how disembodied, disconnected, and disposable music can seem in this era of iTunes, MP3s, and “the cloud.” There are, of course, many benefits to these modern technologies, such as near-instant access to massive music libraries. However, I’m kidding myself if I think that I’m not giving up something valuable in its own right, something that can add another layer of meaning and context to my music. That old black cassette, with Leah’s ornate handwriting all over the cover, is a powerful anchor for the relationships and memories borne out of a shared love for music, an anchor that stands in spite of loss. The same holds true, to a lesser degree, for all of the mixtapes that I’ve recently uncovered.

Now, such an anchor is not necessarily essential to enjoying music and finding it rewarding: I certainly not suggesting that people who have never used cassettes have some sort of hurdle to appreciating music. But I do know that the tens of thousands of MP3s in my iTunes library have little that’s comparable to the intentionality, thoughtfulness, and time contained within old cassettes from friends now long gone.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Ahh, the cassette. A recent “age test” meme went around on facebook with the picture of a pen and a cassette with the question, “what do these have in common?” I took great pride in explaining to those youngsters that the pen was used to physically re-wind the cassette when it came unspooled. There was something physically gratifying about hearing the “clank” as the tape reached its end. And flipping it over, sliding it back into place and hitting play, only to hear that hissing which actually increased the anticipation for the music to come. I have thousands of songs on my iTunes. But I still only listen to a handful of songs per listening session. While the cassette was limiting at times, only holding so many songs per side, I think our digital age has become too convenient. When would we ever have time to listen to thirty days worth of music?

  • http://thefeedbackloopmusic.blogspot.com/ Luke Larsen

    Awesome article! Its interesting that cassettes (and in some ways, even in CDs) have a sense of true nostalgic physicality to them because we remember our collections and the way we used to listen to music.

    The resurgence of vinyl, then, must have a completely different meaning. For those of us young’ns who never owned or barely listened to vinyl until recently, vinyl almost feels like a new medium and has returned the excitement of having to put effort into searching for, buying, and listening to music we love. Any thoughts on how vinyl fits into this?

  • Rich Guy

    The thing I miss sometimes is the linearity of the thing. With an MP3 player it is so easy to skip to the “good” song without that whole fast-forwarding mess that the wonderful process of the song you really didn’t like at first listen slowly over time growing on you until *that* is the song you really love… that process just doesn’t happen for me with MP3s. It is just so easy to hit the “Next Track” button, and at that moment the idea that this annoying, slightly jarring track may (over the course of 30 listens) become the sweetest most beautiful track seems utterly impossible.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Luke: I certainly think there are parallels between the more archaic physical media such as vinyl and cassettes. Simply put, they require more effort from us, and I think that’s part of the appeal. They resist our modern tendency to treat music as a commodity, as something that we can easily access in the cloud to fill in the background of our lives. With physical media such as cassettes and vinyl, it takes effort to find them, carry them around, interact with them, and of course, listen to them (as Rich described above). We have to focus more with them, and so the listening experience becomes more focused, which certainly has its own appeal.

  • http://absolutegrace.wordpress.com Linda

    Ah, and I was thinking I was a bit crazy for missing those things! The portability of the cassette recorder was awesome too. My husband would hide one under the couch during large family gatherings and catch all manner of *interesting* conversations! We have kept a few cassettes too, snippets of our wedding with all the ‘hiss’, clandestine coversations between our dads who are no longer with us, mixes of music that no one else would ever put together, and crazy blends of convos, songs, waves and seagulls, etc. Though digital music alternatives seem more refined, nothing was more personal, fun, and diverse than cassettes! Thank you for articulating that so well in your article!

  • jordin

    If cassettes come back like vinyl has, I hope VHS is next.

  • http://www.alphabetjunkie.com Jett

    I know I’m late to the party, but this is a very beautiful piece of writing.


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