When I used to work in bookshop, I had a surprising number of customers ask me whether we stocked audiobooks in cassette tape format. I explained to them, in the least condescending seeming manner possible, that tapes weren’t being manufactured as much anymore having been replaced by the CD in the early 1990s.
This response often left the customers incredulous and in a cathartic moment of disappointment a few went on to exclaim futilely to the air, “What has happened to the cassette tape?!”. In fact, it turns out that this is a rather pertinent question, as during the past year the media have been anticipating its return to popularity.
Trendy clothing retailers such as Topman and Urban Outfitters have adopted the image of the cassette tape as a fashion symbol, as part of their retro merchandising campaigns. Does that mean that the physical product itself is in some ironic way, cool again? Or is it merely the aesthetic of the tape and all of its nostalgic associations the explanation for why it’s depicted on one out of three people’s t-shirts at most music festivals these days?
It is more likely the latter: imagine walking down Mile End Road with a portable cassette player and not getting beaten up. Okay, maybe slightly extreme. You would at least get a variety of abuse thrown at you from those creepy guys who seem to drive past Queen Mary in white vans all day making fun of students.
For the current generation of young people, it is probably an immaterial matter whether the cassette tape makes a comeback or not. However, the tape’s return into the cultural sphere of the 21st century has in the past year been speculated upon by numerous journalists. Some companies, particularly those in North America, have remarked that the demand for its manufacture has suddenly increased considerably.
It is necessary to debate whether the tape would be merely akin to one of those gratuitous objects of nostalgia that is relaunched into the twenty-first century to initial ubiquitous hype only to then inexorably and miserably flop. I’ll be honest and assert that rather than the cassette tape being resurrected, it would be more awesome if ‘Twin Peaks’ was brought back onto our television screens or if The Smiths got back together.
My apparent disregard towards the fate of the cassette tape is probably down to the fact that as a member of the compact disc generation, I haven’t really had the chance to develop any affinity for it. Conversely, this is not the case for those who grew up in the 70s and 80s. During this time, the tape was an emblem of the DIY-punk movement: a number of bands used four-track cassette tapes or ‘portastudios’ in order to record homemade demos of their music.
The blank tape could also be used for cheekily dubbing music from the radio, the records of friends and capturing whole sets from live performances. This was all copyright infringement of course and caused a whole lot of controversy within the music industry. Obviously, there are multiple platforms for sharing digital music online these days, but all of these methods are impersonal by nature.
One of the significant advantages of the cassette tape over the digital download, is its tangibility. The distribution of tapes and CDs involves face-to-face interaction and thus enables concrete musical communities to develop. Moreover, there is the notion of the mix-tape as one of those classic romantic gifts, complete with mawkish songs such as ‘First Day of My Life’ by Bright Eyes or ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ by Death Cab For Cutie. Undeniably, a mix-tape has more sentimental value and emotional resonance than a mix-CD, or indeed a Spotify playlist.
There is also the issue of possibly having too much choice with versatile devices such as the iPod. This sounds like a stereotypical ‘grumpy old man’ argument, but I can’t remember the last time I listened to an album in its entirety without being tempted to switch to another artist with the simple click of a button. It may just be the case that I’m crap at listening to music.
However, the cassette tape offers a credible solution to my problem. With a portable cassette player, I would be more inclined to devote myself to one record or playlist at a time. For one thing, I wouldn’t be able to carry a load of tapes around in my pocket (thus the source of temptation would be removed) and the act of ejecting and reloading a tape seems like a load of tedious hassle to me.
The return of the cassette tape appears to be inevitable in the near future, and regardless of the fact that it will probably be one of those transient fads, it should be welcomed. The cassette tape would connect our musical generation to that of our parent’s, albeit in the most pretentious way possible, and give us a direct insight into our cultural heritage. In addition, it would be a huge ‘up-yours’ to big corporations such as Apple, at least until Apple themselves jump on the bandwagon and take over the whole cassette tape market of course.