Though it was beloved by a generation, cassettes were quickly dumped by Gen-Xers. But unlike vinyl, this medium is not coming back.
The vinyl revival is one of the more welcome nostalgic movements in popular music. For all the talk about how younger generations do not appreciate the physical medium of music, it's heartwarming to see kids in their early 20s fishing through the vinyl sections of their rapidly-vanishing local record stores. So what if some are doing it for no other reason than hipster cred? It's good to see a physical medium for music thrive.
It took a little less than a decade after the decline of vinyl for a nostalgia movement to arise. In the mid-'90s, some bands would even have the top of their CD design take the form of an album or a 45. Almost 15 years later, we still have vinyl lovers, but we are slowly starting to experience a bit of CD nostalgia as well. Even though CDs are still very much present and available, people have started to stubbornly cling to them just like albums.
Part of the reason for this sort of "pre-death" nostalgia can be attributed to some savvy marketing by record companies. In the past two years, nearly every iconic album from the '90s, from Dr. Dre's The Chronic to Radiohead's OK Computer, have been re-released in deluxe packaging CDs. They come with many liner notes, some sweet packaging (check out Pavement's reissues), and a ton of b-sides. For a Gen-Xer with more disposable income now than they had while they were in college, these offers are hard as hell to turn down. While this accounts for a tiny fraction of CD sales, these reissues prove there is still a need for some people to possess the physical product. A second reason for this "pre-death" nostalgia relates to a grass-roots desire for many people to want to see their local record stores stay in business. Yes, you could buy the new Phoenix album online, but like shopping at the farmer's market, you just feel better making the trek to a local store and making the purchase.
If the boomers grew up on the album and the Gen-Yers grew up on the CD, Gen-X certainly was weaned on the cassette. And while it's evident that there is certainly a market for vinyl, and there is a pretty good chance that the CD will experience a similar, if nowhere nearly as intense revival when it eventually goes away, one thing is certain: there is no such nostalgic feeling for cassettes.
Though cassettes were very much part of the music scene in the '70s, they took off in the '80s, finally outselling albums in 1983 at the height of Michael Jackson mania. But while the album enjoyed a four decade-plus run as being the preferred medium for popular music, cassettes only enjoyed an eight-year run before CDs overtook them in sales in 1991. Though its reign was relatively short, cassettes were the primary listening medium for virtually all of Gen-X. But upon its death in record stores, the mourning period for Gen-X and Gen-Y for this medium was about as fast as a Family Guy flashback. Hell, even the kitsch factor of 8-tracks gave that medium a longer mourning period.
The lack of mourning for the passing of the cassette is curious, but not entirely surprising. As a canvas, the cassette just didn't have the majesty of records. Somehow the covers of Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band just don't seem as iconic when they're condensed into a space that's slightly larger than a pack of smokes. Hauling them around was usually a pain in the ass. And finally, the general sound quality wasn't the reason why most people opted for cassettes. It was for their portability.
If there is a movement for nostalgia for cassettes, it's not the medium, but for the concept of freedom it offered listeners. For those who thought junior high and high school were exercises in purgatory, a Walkman finally offered some minor refuge. The medium also offered the masses an exercise in freedom with the ability to create their own playlists from blank tapes.
Nick Hornby and Rob Sheffield have both written moving accounts of creating great mix tapes for loved ones with High Fidelity and Love Is a Mix Tape, respectively. Both authors tell about the arduous process of not only making sure the songs could adequately fill each side of the tape, but of having to listen to the entire tack, then pushing "Pause" just at the right time for the next song to be recorded. Then came the mix-CD, cutting this process down from 90 minutes to a mere five. Now, with playlists, this process can be done in seconds. The gesture is the same, but it's the equivalent of taking your significant other out to dinner instead of going through the painstaking task of fixing a meal for them at home.
Like DAT's, some mediums are just meant to die and never experience a revival. Cassettes seem destined to fall into this category. When I was packing for my fifth move in about 7 years, I finally decided to pour all the cassettes that got me through junior high and high school in a plastic sack (save three or four for sentimentality). I chucked them into a dumpster and didn't feel the slightest bit of longing or loss. As essential as they were to growing up, it seems like cassettes were just the training wheels for what was to come later on.