[22 April 2014]
The cassette tape is a miniature monument to a lost age of music; a small casket in which to hide memories and last hopes.
The Age of the Cassette
In the early ‘00s I used to go to Micita, a small secondhand book and record shop in Bordeaux, France. The owner would often give me cassettes. I recall him sighing, shaking his head over a stock of leftover tapes that no one would buy. He kept the tapes in little cardboard trays. They were covered in dust and a lot of artworks had faded in the bright sun. Most of the stock was semi-forgotten indie music from the ‘80s and ‘90s – The Sundays, The Chills, or The Nits. For people who wanted to listen back to them, the albums were either available on CDs or the internet – easy to stream, download and collect – easy to find and forget again.
One day, the shop owner carelessly gave me a Sarah Records’ compilation tape called Glass Arcade (1991). It was a perfect pop object; a treasure which meant nothing to most – tapes didn’t matter anymore.
And yet, cassettes had meant a lot to many. In the ‘80s, they provided an inexpensive way of promoting one’s music and of quietly subverting the music industry. Because of their relative cheapness and size (tapes were easy to mail) they were also instrumental in the diffusion of underground, secret movements. A lot of cults were started by cassettes.
In 1992, an enthusiastic American cassette-lover and pop archivist, Robin James, dedicated a whole book to the subversive art of home-taping. Cassette Mythos was a collective work, a kaleidoscope of writers and voices. “Clearly, the Age of the Cassette has arrived”, one of the contributors wrote. The year was 1992 and cassettes had existed since 1963. Cassettes (and four-track recorders) had brought into the world arrays of broken, dysfunctional pop songs: those of Daniel Johnston, R. Stevie Moore and Don Campau, and of a million other home-tapers, whose names have long since slipped into oblivion.
In 2004, I was surprised to find a new book on cassette culture in a London bookshop, Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore. By the time it was published, the Age of the Cassette had clearly, irresistibly dwindled. Moore was celebrating a truly dead media – for a celebration, more often than not, coincides with a sense of loss. The book contained abundant photographs of mixtapes, along with patiently and lovingly crafted pieces by indie personalities such as Dean Wareham and DJ Spooky. Mix Tape appeared as a nostalgic homage: a collection of last words sent to a defiantly obsolete, if treasured, format. Cassettes had become a nearly invisible cultural currency.
Of course, cassettes never entirely disappeared: they carried on enjoying a glorious, if discrete, afterlife. Tapes would no longer be seen but they would certainly exist as magic pop passwords. Billy Childish penned ‘He’s Making a Tape’ in 2008, whilst Comet Gain had a song called the ‘Ballad of a Mixtape’ (2005). The French illustrator and shy chanteuse Anne Bacheley wrote a love song called ‘Mixtape Babies’ (2004). All of these songs, though, were released on CD (CD-R in the case of Bacheley).
Tapes were part of a secret vocabulary, yet curiously absent from the everyday world. In Italy the twee-pop label Best Kept Secret released hundreds of tapes; same goes for the Glasgow-based Kaw records – few heard these. Moreover, few seemed to care. The Rock Snob Dictionary itself, which contained a ‘vinyl’ entry and celebrated everything hip in 2005, had no entry for the word ‘cassette’.
These were the days of Myspace, MP3 players and CD-Rs. A lot of people were busy recording songs with their computer mics, downloading and uploading music, starting music blogs, and serenely, carelessly sabotaging the record industry. Home-recording cultures went digital almost overnight. Within ten years, since the democratization of the internet in the mid-‘90s, computers had become a powerful ‘mono-medium’ (in the words of media theorist Siegfried Zielinski): they centralized music, emails, photography, and videos. And it seemed everything happened on a computer. Some music was born digital and never left its original site of creation.
In 2009 a travelling American musician gave me a tape released on the Brown Interior Music label. Brown Interior Music prided itself on bringing out ‘quality cassette tape releases’. It had a xerox cover with a stranded butterfly on it and the case was a bit broken. The tape had travelled from the USA; it felt like a bizarrely obsolete artefact to hold in my hand in Toulouse, France.
Indeed, being given a cassette struck me as a slightly peculiar event. It revived a small, lost ritual. When I looked at the handwritten insert of the tape, I saw that it came from Olympia. Where else could it come from? The most influential cassette column, named ‘Castanets’, had been started in Olympia in the early ‘80s – a crucial feature of Op magazine. Olympia was also the birthplace of K Records, home of the international pop underground, as well as the city where Toby Vail, original riot grrrl, had founded the Jigsaw fanzine. Jigsaw (now a blog) was and still is a vibrant hymn to tape culture.
In the following years, more new cassettes found their way to me. There were tapes from Europe and the USA – released by Burger Records, Captured Tracks, Primordial Sounds, Monster K7, Correspondence Records—tapes from Young Prisms, Vivian Girls, Golden Grrrls, US Girls, La Luz. Mixtapes and live tapes. Tapes from faraway, tapes from home.
In Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), where I live, local punk and noise acts such as Milk Rice, Future Loss, and Beauty Pageant have all distributed their albums on cassettes. Local tape label Neen Records have just released a compilation tape featuring R. Stevie Moore, one of the original cassette artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s (in 1971, Moore had started his infamous Cassette Club – a network of pen pals to which he would send his music). Cassettes are also being reviewed again in the national music magazine Wire, where they seem to be outnumbering vinyl (another dead media which has experienced a formidable resurrection).
The return of tapes, however, is not an isolated or idiosyncratic phenomenon. It belongs with a larger age of retromania, to use
Simon Reynolds’ expression: cultural objects from the past become desirable once more. Past technologies are feverishly recycled and sold again. Nostalgia is, in other words, a consumers’ disease – a ‘consumeralgia’ – a longing to hold and own things, to collect tangible remainders of the ‘old world’. It is, moreover, a particular disease of the Western World.
In India and other developing countries, tapes were big in the ‘90s but have now been replaced by more modern formats of distribution: CD-rs or USB sticks. The Western World, however, is mourning. It can afford to. The digitization of music may have, after all, fuelled a sense of dispossession. Music is mainly distributed online, in digital formats; one has and no longer holds, one streams and does not keep. The relaunch of the cassette is a way to (partially) attenuate this sense of loss. The tape is a miniature monument to a lost age of music; a small casket in which to hide memories and last hopes—a visual trace of music, if nothing else. Who said you had to listen to them? I suspect most don’t.
Liminal Space: Bandcamp
For all their ubiquity and availability, cassettes cannot be in 2014 what they were in 1984. Adorno once claimed that living in a “genuine, but purchased, period-style house” was no different than embalming oneself alive. I wonder what it means to own cassettes again.
Something strikes me as slightly odd. I strongly suspect that most cassettes remain unplayed after the act of purchase. Most new cars do not even have cassette players. And I haven’t seen anyone wearing a Walkman in more than 15 years. Sony, the company which had launched the Walkman in 1979, stopped making tape players in 2013.
What do the iPod generation actually do with tapes? I would like to know. Part of me pictures realms of cassettes quietly accumulating in people’s houses, treasures untouched and unplayed, decorative fixtures for the eyes rather than the ears. As if the ritual of purchasing and displaying had replaced the ritual of listening. Tapes (and vinyl records) are musical and historical awareness turned into an object – pure presence. They are places, petrified imagery, memorabilia. They do not speak. They indicate silently what used to be.
Tourists and consumers visit them as cultural ruins or souvenirs. In other words, tapes have become exceptional: they are hardly part of the everyday, for the playback devices and socio-political mottos (DIY!) which helped make them so popular in the ‘80s, are now quickly receding. What tapes do is to carry with them the peculiar (if reinvented) memory and aesthetics of past eras, in a rather depoliticised way. Tapes are no longer for sharing: they are for keeping.
Most of the tape labels I know have an online presence. And indeed, most of the new tapes I come across can be streamed and bought on Bandcamp. Though, it must be noted, a lot of them are out of stock as soon as they are advertised. The cassette revival is combined with new technologies and capitalism. New technologies themselves paradoxically allowed for the return of the older medium: most cassettes are hybrid formats, caught in between digital and analogue technologies (more often than not, the tracks on a cassette were recorded digitally before being transfered to tape). Tapeline, the leading British provider of blank tapes, offer a service of tape duplication from digital files. The same goes for a lot of modern LPs, which are pressed from digital tracks mastered for vinyl.
Bandcamp and similar online streaming platforms exist at the suture of old and new economies. On the one hand, music is massively available and can be streamed all day long. On the other, tapes are limited, scarce commodities (with generally ten to 500 copies being made). This proves how marginal cassette listening is in practice. Where cassettes were a popular – one might say democratic – means of disseminating music (they could be copied very easily), they have now become precious consumer goods.
Tapes have evolved from being pop objects to limited edition, highly symbolic art objects – an evolution which is also reflected by their retail prices. Cassettes are about four times more expensive now than they were 30 years ago.
Cassette fever is a digital disease. No one is listening.