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audiocassettes

Logo from the British Phonographic Institute’s antipiracy campaign, ca. 1980.

THERE IS NOTHING MAGIC about a cassette, nothing bewitching about an object that can be taken apart and reassembled or fixed with a pencil. A small rectangular box of plastic in which magnetized tape moves back and forth between miniature spools, it is, from today’s vantage, a hopelessly antiquated format. At a time when most of us listen to music that exists only as data, on soundless players that cannot be pried open, the cassette displays its modest mechanics all too transparently. Peer inside the deck as you slide in a tape in, and you see a tiny, busy factory world of belts, wires, and interlocking gears. Press play, and even before the first track begins, you hear a series of hisses and squeals and the faint whir of the motor. When the side ends: a harsh click. Even in the 1980s, when the cassette tape represented the apex of consumer technology, its advances—the workmanlike auto-reverse button; various gradations of Dolby; “IEC Type II High (CrO₂) Position,” whatever that means—seemed puny, stopgaps to tide us over until we could engineer more elegant solutions.

Given that the cassette is widely regarded as a nostalgic curio today, few people were surprised when Sony discontinued production of the Walkman, their once-iconic portable cassette player, last April. The greater shock, for many, was the realization that Sony was still manufacturing Walkmen at all. While we mourn the player’s death and await the iPhone 5, it would be a mistake to dismiss the cassette as merely a transitional technology. Rather, it offered its user a previously unimaginable degree of autonomy, a freedom that is today familiar to us, and was the first music format to raise thorny questions about the concept of fair use and about what it means to own a piece of music.

The use of magnetic tape for sound recording dates back to 1920s Germany, though its use for playback of prerecorded programs remained a closely guarded secret until after World War II. This technology found new uses in America, from Bing Crosby’s meticulously edited radio broadcasts of the late ’40s and ’50s to the experiments in tape manipulation advanced by the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the ’60s. But the devices remained bulky and expensive until 1962, when Philips developed the compact cassette. Owing to their poor fidelity, cassettes were initially marketed only to journalists, educators, and those with an interest in obsessively chronicling the sounds of their lives. Andy Warhol, naturally, was an early adopter: He famously referred to his Norelco tape recorder as his “wife.” Unlike its predecessor, the eight-track tape, the cassette was a format that afforded the user a degree of control, something Warhol alluded to when he compared his mind to “a tape recorder with one button: Erase.” Recording and erasing were fundamentally new experiences. These were actions that anticipated the possibilities of the endlessly mutable self, the protagonist of the postindustrial age.

In the 1970s, cassettes became a reliable, high-fidelity format for music. The Walkman was introduced in 1979 and immediately became a ubiquitous accessory. Record companies began trying to persuade consumers to repurchase their favorite LPs on cassette (as they would later with compact discs), while the possibilities of the blank cassette transfixed communities outside the major-label economy. Tapes of DJ mixes had been valuable souvenirs at disco clubs and hip-hop parties in the mid-’70s, eventually morphing into a vibrant underground economy of intricately crafted mix tapes. A generation of producers learned the basics of looping samples by making rudimentary “pause tapes.”

Meanwhile, since home recording was no longer prohibitively expensive, scores of amateur bands in the post-punk era were able to document their noise. The fact that cassettes could be manufactured in small batches appealed to the outsider ambitions of 1980s independent rock labels and fanzines, and the fact that cassettes could be made in quantities of one inspired countless tape-trading clubs (not to mention a whole new level of zealotry among Deadheads). Mix-tape culture blossomed as well, with generations honing their romantic instincts by devoting hours to the careful construction of perfectly sequenced, emotionally passive-aggressive playlists. There were also more serious curatorial projects like New York’s Tellus: The Audio Cassette Magazine. Founded in 1983, Tellus was a subscription-based cassette series highlighting various “sound works”—music, poetry, noise, collage, or, in the case of Kiki Smith’s 1982 Life Wants to Live, the audio component of a physical fight between Smith and David Wojnarowicz. “Tellus told us there were others like us,” sound artist Gen Ken Montgomery remarked in the sleeve notes of the 2001 compilation Tellus Tools. “In the early 80s if you were working on the fringe area between art and music, without the means to have a record label produce your work, putting sounds onto cassettes and mailing them to friends was something everyone could do.”

There are those who never abandoned this possibility. Cassette labels like 905 Tapes, Folding, Fuck It, Ginjoha, Life Like, and The Tapeworm (to name but a few—it is a very decentralized scene) are willfully niche, scaled-down operations at a time when it takes little effort to beam your signal worldwide. For many of these labels, which launched in the mid- or late 2000s, the cassette is a format that exists in opposition to the aims and aesthetics of the recording industry. Despite the fact that they are fairly cheap to manufacture—a typical tape costs about seventy cents—most tapes today are released in editions of one hundred or less, often hand-numbered.

Cover of Tellus: The Audio Cassette Magazine. No. 11

Cassette aficionados also see aesthetic possibilities in the format’s constraints. While digital compression techniques ensure that songs we hear on the radio or in MP3 format are bright and loud, cassettes—particularly those dubbed en masse—slightly blunt the dynamics of a song. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many cassette labels specialize in works that are ambient, ethereal, or noisy. Fidelity is sacrificed for a different kind of listening experience. On an excellent recent tape by Deep Magic titled Planetary Roots (issued by the UK’s Colour Ride), thinning layers of hypnotic, cosmic patterns dissolve into a shadowy hiss. It’s hard to tell whether the hiss is intrinsic to the tape or the recording, or even occasionally imagined. Warped, wobbling textures evoke nth-generation copies of copies—the degradation becomes an aesthetic. As the ribbon spools back and forth, auto-reversing over and over, the tape becomes an infinite loop. At a time when our senses are used to the highest definition possible, the cassette’s grainy, blurry sound feels nostalgic and distant—even more so as a Walkman’s batteries slowly drain of their vitality.

Parallel to these new labels, a community of MP3 blogs has emerged to archive and chronicle the cassette-based microgenres of the late ’80s and ’90s, from perverse new age synthesizer workouts to regional hip-hop. Brian Shimkovitz curates the fantastic Awesome Tapes from Africa, a blog devoted to digitizing his collection of three hundred cassettes collected during his travels through West Africa, where the affordability of cassettes and the ubiquity of tape decks in homes and cars mean that the format remains popular. Some of the best archives of 80s hip-hop radio are found on blogs like the appropriately named Old School Hip Hop Tapes. Other blogs and YouTube channels offer samplings of ’60s commercial radio in San Francisco, offshore pirate radio in the UK, and Detroit’s deeply influential late-’70s and ’80s Midnight Funk Association program. These are recent histories that could have easily been lost forever, had a basement flooded or a car stereo grown temperamental.

Privately recorded and endlessly copied tapes represented the worst nightmare of a bygone generation of record-label executives. At the dawn of the Walkman age, labels feared that sales of records would suffer if people were free to tape their favorite songs off the radio. In the early ’80s, the British Phonographic Institute introduced its “Home Taping Is Killing Music” antipiracy campaign, complete with a skull-and-crossbones (or rather, cassette-and-crossbones) logo. The slogan, equal parts dare and prophecy, raised a series of philosophical questions about what you owned when you bought a piece of music, and whether you were within your legal rights to make cassette copies of albums to share with friends. These debates, of course, would outlast both the cassette and its heir, the compact disc. What the antipiracy activists couldn’t foresee was the intoxicating effect of assembling a mix tape or hearing yourself through your headphones. What the cassette introduced wasn’t merely the impulse to copy and steal or to curate and create. The cassette inaugurated an era when it was possible to control one’s private soundscape.

With the popularization of the MP3, purchasing music ceased to be a matter of ownership. The specter of home taping gave way to an era of digital rights management. Since there was no actual, physical object to be possessed, a new kind of agreement was forged in which the listener leased “fair use” rights to the song. The return to cassette culture emerges, paradoxically, as a response to this state of affairs, which it was instrumental in nurturing. It is an embrace of limitations and constraints, at a time when everything is available. It is the suggestion that a single, well-sequenced, hand-dubbed cassette can be as thrilling as an iPod that is roughly the same size. Peer through the window: The tape travels from one spool to the other, slowly and steadily, at a pace we can comprehend.

Hua Hsu is a critic and an assistant professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.