cassette tape
Photo: Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

For the Love of the Crappy Cassette Tape

The peculiar technology of the lo-fi, crappy cassette tape exemplifies the inherent contradictions of popular music better than any other medium.

Unspooled: How the Cassette Made Music Shareable
Rob Drew
Duke University Press
March 2024
High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape
Marc Masters
University of North Carolina Press
October 2023

The cover of Professor Rob Drew’s new book, Unspooled: How the Cassette Made Music Shareable, is perfectly suited to its topic: a stack of cassette tape cases with a broken tape on top spilling its magnetized guts over the side of the stack. The rest of the stack reads like a summary of the volume: the four spines that list the author, title, and subtitle are identified as TDK ‘D’ and Maxell ‘UR’ blanks (budget varieties from the two dominant manufacturers rather than their high-bias models); the other labels include legendary releases by indie labels K and Shrimper, influential compilations by Seattle’s Subpop and London’s NME/Rough Trade, a famous debut by Throwing Muses, and what presumably are Drew’s own hand-labeled home rerecordings of the best albums by US punk stalwarts Husker Dü and X.

Whether the items in this image are literally from Drew’s collection or a facsimile assembled by designers David Rainey and Aimee C. Harrison, they hint at key questions within both Unspooled and Marc Master’s High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape – the play of authenticity and commercialism, the ways cassette culture both rejected pop forms and embraced them and the ambivalent relationship between art and commerce that cuts through nearly all music. Like the technological medium they celebrate, both Unspooled and High Bias have their own ambivalent relationship with commerce: the books are published by non-profit university presses, but they’re written and designed with an eye towards a broader market than academia. Drew is a professor of communications at the University of Saginaw, and his trim 200-page volume delves deeply into the specific case of (mostly white male) indie rock music’s love affair with the cassette tape in the ’80s and ’90s. Unspooled engages directly and intentionally with the academic disciplines of media, culture, and technology studies.

Masters is a music journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and in the Washington Post, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Bandcamp Daily, and his longer book, High Bias, provides a broader historical and geographical overview, attempting to cover the full range of roles the cassette tape has played as a portable DIY audio technology and as a cultural phenomenon. Both books are informative and entertaining to the degree of your interest in the music and cultural history of the cassette tape, and the two approaches complement one another well. The material covered has a fair degree of overlap, but the arguments are different. Unspooled homes in on the sociocultural ambiguities and ambivalences of the cassette tape, while High Bias is more interested in investigating and celebrating the myriad more-or-less outsider practices that developed and flourished around it.

The story of the cassette tape Drew and Masters tell is compelling: how a lo-fi, accident- and deterioration-prone, and more-or-less parasitic audio technology not only achieved market dominance but captured a permanent place in the imaginations and practices of music-makers, labels, distributors, and fans the world over. It’s not as if vinyl, reel-to-reel, CDs, streaming, or, for that matter, 8-track tapes were wrinkle-free media. It’s that the particular kinks of the cassette tape proved part-and-parcel, rather than incidental, to its rise to prominence.

In Unspooled, this story revolves around the ways the affective qualities of mix tape culture epitomized in the Hallmark-style slogan “Love is a mix tape” “…helped define the cassette retrospectively as something other than an instrument of piracy”. In High Bias, the new ways of relating to technology characteristic of today’s devices were initiated and first codified by the cassette tape. And it’s the decentralizing, DIY element of the technology: “an audio medium that everyone can access and control and modify and remake and destroy and resurrect. It’s an audio medium that was actually made for everyone. That’s pretty revolutionary.” The tape cassette was, as Drew puts it in Unspooled, “a medium of becoming”.

The cassette was also a medium that effectively decoupled listeners and creatives from the need or desire for high-fidelity sound, opening up a distinct way of experiencing and relating to music and the world at large. While audiophiles stuck with high-end reel-to-reel for recording and preserving the music, sounds, and memories they loved, it was children and teens in the ’60s that first “broke” the home tape recorder, taping their favorite hits off the AM radio to play back as often as they wanted, with atrocious sound quality, hiss, and background noise, but without patter or commercials. I remember that pleasure well, despite the fact that sometimes the only way I could make out the song when played back was because I knew it so well already.

But poor audio quality was both the whole point and completely beside the point of cassettes. And it wasn’t just an issue with music. Independent Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin remembers how he first encountered the Alfred Hitchcock classic thriller Vertigo, “…the very first movie I memorized off TV … A friend of mine caught it on TV, but this was pre-video, so he just made an audio tape of it. And I listened to it, maybe a hundred times before ever seeing it including the commercials. They placed one unfortunate commercial right in the middle of the revelation that Judy is Madeleine … and it was tremendous.”

Neither Unspooled nor High Bias devotes much time to scarcity’s role in the cassette’s rise. Unless you lived in one of the handful of metropoles in the US or the UK, finding out about music beyond what played on the radio was difficult, much less tracking down actual LPs. Similarly, before VHS, cable, or streaming, there was no way to watch movies outside of what showed on TV or in whatever multiplex was nearby—as Winnipeg native Maddin’s story indicates. Only late in the ’70s did books like the Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979) introduce most of us to records beyond what was released in a given year, and only in broadly distributed magazines like Rolling Stone in the US and Melody Maker in the UK could you find out about any new releases beyond the hits.

Still, even when you knew about new music, there was seldom any way to find a record unless you made a trip to a major city. If you lived outside of the US or the UK, you had to beg anyone traveling abroad to bring albums back for you, similar to how Marjane Satrapi tells her story in 2003’s Persepolis about how she would beg her traveling parents to smuggle tapes and a Michael Jackson poster for her in late ’70s Teheran. These fragmented, distorted, yet emotionally cathected and deeply satisfying encounters with secondhand news and third-hand media were formative to several generations’ artistic and musical sensibilities.

Long before the gift economy of the mix tape, the cassette and the tape recorder enabled sharing, exchanging, and otherwise negotiating the economy of scarcity that drove the music business. Word-of-mouth networks were supplemented, as both Unspooled and High Bias document, by ads in the back of the ’zines that emerged around musical subcultures, by tape-sharing or -selling networks used by Deadheads, metalheads, punks, and early hip-hop artists to build their archives, keep current, or get the word out.

Audio companies tailored their technology to the cultures the cassette had developed: embedding tape decks into stereos to permit higher quality rerecording; selling dual cassette tapes to facilitate dubbing, often at high speed; developing high bias blank tapes and noise reduction technology to mitigate the basic infidelity of magnetic recording tape; and inventing culturally transformative players and recorders like the boombox and the Walkman. Part of the lure for the consumer was economic—blank tapes were much cheaper than LPs—but the scarcity of music was an important factor, and even more important were the cultures of exchange, bartering, and sharing that taping facilitated. Indeed, the cassette tape marks the beginning of what we now call social media.

But it wasn’t just the culture of the cassette that Unspooled and High Bias explore. It was the particular materiality and physicality of its form. The miniaturization, the cheapness, the portability, the ease of playback, the reusability, and even the ease of disposability set the cassette apart from its rivals. My dad used to complain about cars in the ’80s that he could no longer just open the hood and know how to fix it intuitively. Cassettes were to music lovers like older cars are to my dad; sure, they would get mangled and unspooled in your player, but you could usually eject them without damaging the tape and wind the tape back tight using a pencil, or you could pop open the shell and just spool all that tape back in with your small finger.

LPs would break, warp, or get scratched beyond playability, but when they were done, there was nothing to do about it, and replacing them was expensive. Tapes would wobble, hiss, slow down, speed up, or simply break. But you could just make another one, or if it was an irreplaceable dub or comp, you simply had to accept that it was gone.

Indeed, the cassette tape was both a cheap commodity and a unique artifact. The folded cardboard sleeve was blank. It could be filled in, scribbled over, pasted over, or replaced with art, info, or whatever you wanted, however you wanted. Even the ten-pack cardboard boxes in which we bought TDK or Maxell C-90 blanks in bulk were perfect makeshift carrying cases for a road trip or a party. I remember laboriously carting LPs around, but a ten-pack of cassettes fit almost anywhere and weighed almost nothing. CDs are practical, LPs are beautiful, but cassettes feel sui generis. As I write, I’m looking at a trio of cassettes gifted to me by my late brother-in-law Ricky Lee Schill, visual artist, bass player, and songwriter for the Louisville band Poor Girls. Like Ricky’s art and music, they feel both dashed off and carefully executed, an assemblage of live recordings, demos, and secondary projects. Poor Girls somehow managed to finance one LP in 1985. But these three tapes are unique. Cassettes are like that.

Some of this experience is covered in Unspooled and High Bias. Others – like the way we’d use our college radio shows to record tapes to play at dance parties or pillage the radio station’s LP library to copy records missing from our collections – are part of the history they tap into. Masters is particularly fascinated by the many outsider cultures that emerged at the margins of commercially released tapes and mainstream taping. High Bias delves not just into celebrated home recorders like R. Stevie Moore and Daniel Johnston, but into a “cassette underground” populated by lo-fi musicians, noise collages, conceptual artists, and a “seemingly infinite range of creative personalities”. Those personalities extend from bands that would eventually break into the indie mainstream or even the big-time to creatives who actively repudiated marketability or even listenability. Because of the cassette’s and the cassette recorder’s cheapness, ease of use, and portability, it effectively freed up audio recording from any commercial constraints or industry restrictions.

While High Bias repeatedly centers on the non-commercial margins of taping cultures, Unspooled focuses on what Drew calls the “fruitful ambivalence of margin and mainstream”. This focus ranges at times briefly into the black- or grey-market tape economies of the global South—especially in a number of African countries—which Masters covers extensively. But Unspooled is more specifically targeted at the indie rock movement that grew out of the affordances of home taping and relied for its own outsider self-image on the symbolic values that crystallized around the cassette tape. “Secondhand tapes,” Drew argues, “played a distinctive part both in spreading the gospel of scenes and blurring their boundaries.”

Just as pop and rock music were simultaneously what indie, punk, hip-hop, and other genres at their origins defined themselves against, they also provided the raw materials for this new music and the enduring allure of commercial viability most of these artists – in one way or another – desired. The cassette tape medium perfectly suited this ambivalence, whether permitting the “brilliant, post-Kinks pop” of a lo-fi musician like Martin Newell, who panicked at the thought of touring, or enabling “female fans of punk and indie” to identify, nurture, and share an alternative musical legacy that would launch the careers of numerous Riot Grrrl bands out of the Pacific Northwest.

As a prerecorded medium, the cassette tape dominated the commercial music market for only a few short years in the second half of the ’80s—it overtook the LP in 1984 and was “killed” by the new compact disc format in 1991. But as Unspoole and High Bias convincingly demonstrate, the use to which the recording industry wanted to limit this technology was the least meaningful of the functions the analog cassette assumed during its decades at the heart of music culture, from the late ’60s until supplanted by digital media around the turn of the millennium. While Unspooled (ambivalently) and High Bias (wholeheartedly) document something like a cassette revival in the 2020s, it’s clearly even more niche of a market than the current vinyl fetishization.

I was too old to be fully caught up in the mix tape decade that peaked the affective power of the cassette, but reading about it made me remember a fantastic piece of microfiction published in 2002 by Amanda Holzer, “Love and Other Catastrophes: A Mix Tape”. Narrated entirely as a pair of J-cards listing titles and artists of 50 top-40 singles, Holzer’s story traces the arc of a relationship that begins and ends with Eric Carmen’s 1975 pity party song, “All by Myself”. There’s one indie ringer on the list, “Let’s Kiss” by the Beat Happening, the lo-fi group led by Calvin Johnson, DJ at Olympia’s Evergreen State College radio station KAOS. “Let’s Kiss” was home-recorded on cassette in 1985 and released out of Johnson’s kitchen as the title song on an early cassette-only compilation by his fledgling label K Records, a time and place that are central to the narratives of both Unspooled and High Bias.

Like any mix tape creator worth her salt, Holzer weaves a personal narrative, a unique history, and a direct connection with the titles she includes and the order in which she includes them. Although thanks to one “Professor Panda” and the wonders of audio streaming, we can now listen to the full playlist online, the microfiction works equally well as plain vanilla text for those who know these songs and can play them through in their heads just from the J-cards. Indeed, “Let’s Kiss” is the only song of the 50 that I didn’t know by heart from so many years captive to top-40 radio.

What the cassette did, in ways that the LP could not because of its limitations and that streaming could not because of its limitlessness, is to ply that essential borderland between songs that worked because they could mean all things to all people and songs that spoke only to a single individual at a time. Unspooled and High Bias show readers that the peculiar technology of the cassette tape exemplifies the inherent contradictions of popular music perhaps better than any other medium. If that also means they enshrine a specific era in pop culture from the mid-’60s to the mid-’90s as the pinnacle of popular music, I’m not going to mount a counterargument. The cassette, you could say, wears its bias on its sleeve.

Additional Works Cited

Anderson, John. “Guy Maddin”. Film Comment. March-April 1988.

Holzer, Amanda. “Love and Other Catastrophes: A Mix Tape“. YouTube