Music as a souvenir. It’s a concept I first witnessed in the download age, when South Korean teenagers bought 45-inch trucks, even though they didn’t own turntables.
It is estimated that 40% of vinyl albums purchased by millennials are never played.
Fans want something they can touch and for many, cassettes are now meeting that need.
Described by some as “The largest technology fair in EuropeThe Berlin Radio Show has long been famous for showcasing the next big thing in consumer electronics. In 1963 it was the compact audio cassette, introduced at the time by its creator, the late Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, who is dead early March.
During Ottens’ lifetime, cassettes came to redefine listening habits, which until then had been limited to the much bulkier vinyl record. Car radios and the iconic Sony Walkman were suddenly created individual listening experiences possible outside the house. The re-recordable nature of the format, meanwhile, has helped music fans collect and circulate their own mixtapes. At its peak in 1989, the tape was moving 83 million units per year in UK only.
Although having been replaced in its functionality first by the compact disc (CD) then the digital file (mp3 and mp4), the audio cassette retains a special place in the history of audio technology, with mixtapes a precursor. playlists, and the Walkman, the precursor to the iPod.
And, while viewed as aesthetically and materially inferior to the vinyl record that came before it, the audio cassette is actually experiencing a kind of resurgence – partly for sentimental reasons, but also because, with the gigs canceled, it’s a smart way for small artists to monetize their work.
In a context of a pandemic which has made enormous damage to the music industry, 2020 could rightly be called the year of the tape. According to figures from the UK phonographic industry, 156,542 cassettes were sold in the UK last year, the highest figure since 2003 and a 94.7% increase over 2019 sales. Seemingly out of the blue, global pop icons such as Lady Gaga, 1975 and Dua Lipa have rushed to release their new releases on tape – and they are selling.
For those of us who are old enough to remember cassette tape as a common format for musical consumption, their resurgence is somewhat puzzling. After all, even in their prime, tapes were always a bit bad.
They lacked the aesthetic and romance of vinyl LP and its gatefold cover art. Subsequently, they lacked the usability, brilliance, and sonic fidelity of CD. And there’s not a living music fan over 35 who doesn’t have a horror story to tell about a favorite album or mixtape chewed up by a malicious car stereo or portable boombox.
Ottens himself rejected the “nonsense” of a cassette revival, told the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad that “nothing can match the sound” of the CD, which he also played a key role in development. For Ottens, the ultimate goal of any music format was clarity and precision of sound, however, with a nod to nostalgic listeners, he also conceded: “I think people mostly hear what they want. hear.”
To feel it
As a researcher popular music and material cultureI can’t help but wonder if Ottens’ strict utilitarian perspective misses a deeper point about the tape and its recent resurgence as a medium in popular culture.
After all, the cultural enjoyment of music extends far beyond narrow debates about sound quality. Our enjoyment of music, and the cultural rituals that surround it, is a complex and deeply social thing it is not just about our ears.
The continued rebirth of the record, for example, is sometimes explained as a return to the superior sound of vinyl. But it’s just as often seen as a cultural shift return to an iconic medium, steeped in musical history, that people can feel, manipulate and experience together – unlike a digital file. Although less iconic, cassettes also represent cultural moments of great importance to music lovers.
In the mid-2010s, I investigated the first signs of this resurgence of cassettes in the indie and punk scenes of Glasgow as part of my Doctorate, talk to musicians, labels and fans about the resurgence of cassettes. In these conversations, the materiality of these objects – their physical and tangible presence – was often put forward as a motivating factor.
As one fan pointed out to me, “I just like having things. They’re all disappearing a bit now, but I just like having something. It’s my hobby, music is my hobby, and that’s how I spend my money. “
There is also an economic component to the resurgence of cassettes. With the debates are raging on how music streaming services should reimburse artists, independent musicians have for some time considered selling physical products and goods as a means of generating income.
For indie and punk bands in Glasgow, as for independent artists today, cassettes were in fact a profitable way to deliver a physical product, much cheaper than squeezing a vinyl record and printing sleeves and packaging. As one label owner put it, “we tend to come out on tape because it’s cheap to make, it’s easy to collect, and it leaves money for bands to get something” .
While the practices of these small independent artists may seem quite remote from the recent adoption of cassettes by mainstream pop stars, each arguably has its roots in a desire to analog products that we can touch in an increasingly digital world mediated via screens.
Many people reported feelings of digital detachment and alienation during the pandemic. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the desire for something that we can actually feel, accompanied by a nostalgic glow of a past without COVID, may also explain the resurgence of the audio cassette, almost 60 years since its debut in Berlin.