The Evolution of Cassette Culture
Those of us old enough to have grown up with cassette tapes have fond memories of recording bootleg albums, taping our favourite radio shows, or churning out mixtapes. Jacob Waite retraces the history of the cassette and discovers how the platform has evolved…
It is well-documented that a serious bout of insomnia contributed to the introduction of tape recording by Californian audio and video engineer, John T. “Jack” Mullin. Tapes have recently celebrated their seventieth birthday. However, like many music platforms, cassette tapes are not designed without their faults. Vinyl often keeps you on your toes, and constantly engaged with the record, so much that you have to regularly switch sides (especially with 7”s). CDs, in comparison, are also relatively flimsy and can easily be scratched. However, some cassette tape enthusiasts may remember the devastating moment when the tape you are gleefully bopping along to suddenly grinds to an unforgiving halt.
You frantically thump the eject button in an attempt to expose the chewed cassette, only to wrestle with the machine, which has a firm grasp on your tape. It often requires a pencil (or any other relatively slender shaped object) to set the tape free. Once it is loose, you are left with the unforgiving task of untying knots and meticulously ironing creases from the tape — which, after all of the rigmarole and intrinsic repairing, never quite plays like it used to.
With this in-mind, as a music enthusiast and a self-confessed cassette tape virgin, it came as a huge surprise to me when the BBC reported that cassette tapes were rumoured to be making an ‘unexpected comeback’ in 2016. I did some digging and discovered that cassette tape sales were increasing so dramatically that The Recording Industry Association of America were now looking for ways to track official sales — with underground musicians’ cassette releases thought to be partly responsible for the so-called re-emergence of cassette tapes.
Using SurveyMonkey, an online survey development website, I asked 60 of my music-obsessed Facebook friends, whether they had listened to cassette tapes during their lifetime — surprisingly, (perhaps due to my lack of knowledge of cassettes), 50 of them (83.33%) said yes, while 10 people (29.17%) said no.
I also asked them whether they currently listened to cassette tapes — 1 of my friends said yes, to which the other 98.33% said no. In addition, I asked if cassette tapes were to become as accessible as other music formats. For example, CD, digital downloads, or vinyl, would they regularly listen to them — 34 people (56.67%) said yes, whereas the other 26 (43.33%) politely disagreed.
Despite a small percentage of my Facebook friends being unaccountable for an accurate representation of a universal world-view on cassette tapes, it certainly raised some unanswered questions, those of which I was able to direct at Daniel Bashin, the co-founder and art director of cassette label, Dirty Tapes.
“I drove out to Cleveland to meet Chris Delofi, and we just started brainstorming together and came up with our aesthetic to drive the label — a culmination of our analog photography juxtaposed with the dirty, straight-to-cassette production that we were experimenting with.”
The founding fathers of the cassette label met in 2009 through Cleveland Tapes, a music label run by Ra Washington. Three years later, the Dirty Tapes label was born, providing a platform to ‘break out unknown artists’ and bring underground musicians and artists into the spotlight, without the ‘unnecessary hype’ or ‘pressures’ of a traditional music label.
“Tapes and cassette culture has always been an aesthetic and inspirational medium and drive for our brand. Besides the actual physical process of tracking out music to cassette tape as a production process… it is a devotional and an ethereal method in which you actually have to respect the music process. It makes you respect the sound a lot more, you actually have to pay attention to things way more carefully when you’re recording, taking the time to rewind — listen back and be mindful of your levels.”
Daniel expresses that tape recording is a ‘very meticulous process’ and one that ‘forces you to be more attentive to the sound’. I was told cassette tapes have a defining mastering quality, which adds to the distortion, warmth, and depth of noise and DIY musicians, which I am assured ‘you simply cannot get from today’s digital methods’.
By 2013, Dirty Tapes released the Dink / Tuamie split tape, and the Dil Withers / Ohbliv tape, solidifying its status as a heavy-hitter in the larger sphere of the ‘music world’. After the two defining projects, the label witnessed a huge movement of artists ‘pushing their projects onto the cassette format’ which they believe was ‘completely unprecedented’.
“In no means were we the first label to push cassettes, but around that time we started in 2012, it was a huge risk to invest in tapes and put out no-name artists. The risk paid off, and now cassettes are the number one platform for the larger underground scene. This can also be seen in recent as Stones Throw, a label known for traditionally vinyl teaming up with Leaving Records and promoting a lot of their new releases as cassette-only.”
The collective convey that they are no longer ‘phased’ by the recent shift in popularity of cassette tapes, instead they ‘welcome’ its re-emergence as a music platform which binds its users with underground musicians.
Dirty Tapes primary intention is to continually host live events, which ‘expose more amazing artists’ in the underground scene. The label often represents musicians by meticulously documenting their artistic journey through the ‘curation and preservation of the analog aesthetic, tapes and dirt’. The collective express their desire to release music on vinyl and VHS in the future, pushing artistry to ‘new levels’ and present music in interesting ways.
Hielko Meijer, an avid cassette collector, believes there is a ‘small digital market’, popular among underground circles. He voices his disdain for the ‘lack of physical media’ in today’s digital era.
“Personally I think [digital media] is crap, the sound quality is bad and I hate not having the physical copy in my hands. I truly believe that nothing can touch the analog sound of tape and vinyl.”
Growing up in the Netherlands, Hielko’s father had a ‘simple Grundig top-loader’. He later purchased his first cassette deck, a Philips N2521, as a paperboy at the age of 16. In his younger years, Hielko began repairing cassette decks and tapes for friends, which gradually transformed from a childhood hobby into a finely-honed craft.
“I have been collecting audio all of my life, from 8 track to open-reel, and especially Luxman vintage audio products. I currently own about one hundred cassette decks. I also repair decks from all over the world… And now and then I sell one.”
In addition to fixing and collecting cassettes, Hielko is the founder of ‘Vintage Cassette Decks’ a popular online cassette deck collectors’ circle, which offers individuals who relish their DCC, elcaset or compact cassette decks a place to share their passion with other like-minded enthusiasts.
The closed Facebook group was founded over a year ago with the aim of making good friends and sharing knowledge with fellow cassette enthusiasts. Hielko informs me the group’s mantra is to ‘keep the decks alive’, regular members of the group often share photos of their cassette decks and invite intelligent discussion.
I began to wonder whether cassettes were becoming a part of the recent increase in the popularity of vinyl. Hielko, however, assures me that cassettes are not yet ‘as big as vinyl’.
“Cassettes are getting more and more like vinyl. The lack of physical media is apparent and most certainly needed for people to own, and have in your hands. Vinyl and tape belong to each other. You must remember, back in the day, there was no alternative… the [Sony] Walkman had no competition…it is still is a bit niche, but lot of people never gave up on [cassette] tapes, prices on old sealed stock are ridiculous, they are selling for up to one-hundred pounds for a single blank tape.”
Although portable digital recorders are becoming increasingly popular, analog tape remains a desirable option for musicians and consumers. Music genres such as Swedish ‘dansband’ favour the use of cassette tapes as a primary music format. Most independent DJ and musician circles maintain the tradition of using and releasing their material on cassettes due to its low cost and ease of use. Underground and DIY music communities regularly release music on cassette tapes, particularly in experimental music circles, and to a lesser extent in metal and hardcore music circles, where its popularity is born from a clear fondness of the format.
Founded in 2013 by British cassette labels Kissability, Suplex Cassettes and Sexbeat, Cassette Store Day is quickly developing into an essential event for international tape enthusiasts. Unlike Record Store Day, the day is less about supporting local shops, but and more about celebrating the cassette tape format.
Last year, Burger Records were at the helm of the third annual event’s North American activities, with the collective partnered with the Australian label Rice is Nice, New Zealand’s Arch Hill label, and German-based label Mansions and Millions and Späti Palace.
Popular British supermarket stores, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are among retailers who announced they would begin selling vinyl in 2016 for the first time in their combined 244 year history. However, the sale of cassette tapes in UK high street shops, from my knowledge, are virtually non-existent.
Nevertheless, I perused the high streets of Liverpool, Birkenhead, Preston, and Manchester to find cassette tapes. I was astonished to find that tapes are more than accessible, despite being hidden in crates of record stores and tossed carelessly onto shelves of second-hand shops (as seen below).
After the sale of vinyl albums almost tripled in 2015, UK high street retailer HMV began stocking vinyl in all of its stores for the first time since the 1990s. I contacted the company’s customer service desk to ask them whether they have considered restocking cassettes, since ‘phasing them out’ across all branches in 2003. Unfortunately, due to their ‘many commercial commitments’ I was informed that HMV were not in a position to provide a representative to comment on their past and future stocking of cassette tapes. However, Jason from the customer service desk was more than willing to provide his professional opinion…
During 2016, popular mainstream figures in the music industry, such as Lana Del Rey, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West, were among the DIY and underground musicians involved in the release of music on cassette tapes. However, despite the increasing popularity of the nostalgic music platform, the surprising artistic value of cassettes, like vinyl, have allowed artists to utilise music platforms in their artwork.
Borea ‘Domingo’ Domenico, otherwise known in the art world as DomingoArt, has been creating art with music for over a year, and told me that he regularly makes use of cassette tapes in his artwork.
“I began creating art with cassette tapes for four or five months ago… I usually design my musical heroes. I reproduce singers who have curly hair, to utilise the cassette tape for their hair.”
Domingo often draws portraits of musicians past and present and has created artworks, including famous faces such as Jimi Hendrix, Thin Lizzy bass guitarist and vocalist Phil Lynott, and Slash using old household cassette tapes and spray paint.
The man behind the art currently resides in quaint Montecchio Emilia, a comune in the Province of Reggio Emilia. However, he spent most of his life growing up in Turin, the capital city of Piedmont in northern Italy.
“When I was growing up, I used to listen to cassette tapes quite regularly, although now I prefer to listen to other music platforms, like CDs or vinyl… I have always enjoyed creating new forms of art, I often use various techniques with pen, pencil, spray-paint and much more.”
I yearned to understand the popularity of cassette tapes, given my age, I was led to believe the ‘golden age’ of tapes were over, yet, on my journey I spoke to record labels, collectors, and those who make art — and they all have something in common — a shared interest in a plastic rectangle, which once played, engages those around them in a positive way. Therefore, I grabbed a CD and cassette player from the British Heart Foundation furniture shop in Birkenhead, Merseyside and borrowed some tapes from a fellow cassette enthusiast to see what the fuss was about…
After the experience I felt I was truly able to understand the nature of the cassette. Whether the re-emergence of the cassette tape is just an unprecedented anomaly or a progressive trend, there is no denying that the nostalgic music platform wields enough influence to its users to linger for at least a dozen more decades. Still, those who I have spoken to on my journey of self-cassette discovery, partnered with the knowledge that more music labels are being established on a regular basis across all corners of the globe, has opened my eyes to a traditional way of consuming music — a physical and tangible piece of art, stored in plastic and tape.
Cassette tapes have been a constant in the world of music, while not consistent in their popularity among high street retailers and their consumers. Tapes allowed prior generations, and current underground circles the ability to buy new releases at an affordable price. More importantly, they allowed friendships to grow and develop through the love of music, whether that was through similar music tastes or by trading blank tapes filled with unheralded gems or poorly-recorded mixtapes and expeditions into music.
The increasing engagement of independent music labels on Cassette Store Day suggests that the platform has evolved and will remain prevalent to some degree in our ‘digital age’, regardless of its critics. In spite of the fact that it is almost impossible to regulate cassette tape sales, despite efforts by The Recording Industry Association of America. Tapes are very rarely tracked with a bar-code, and are often self-produced by underground musicians and DIY labels - which sell directly to consumers online or fans at gigs. My research, however, points to an engaged niche audience that is growing into a progressive sub-culture, hidden by the success of the media-dubbed ‘vinyl revival’. Cassette tapes make as much sense now, economically, as they do musically, in a twenty-first century ravaged with poverty and artistry at every corner.
I am a non-for-profit freelance writer and journalist who enjoys writing words about the subcultures surrounding retro platforms. If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment, share on social media, or on Medium — where you can also follow me, or my instagram account @waiteski, figuratively, of course.