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Borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties?
February 10, 2013 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Hey, music geeks! Can someone please explain the recent retro-fetishization of the cassette tape? When and where did this trend begin?

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a show in the East Village featuring a neo-psychedelic electronic act that answered to the name Motion Sickness of Time Travel. At the end of the performance, I went to the table near the entrance and asked if they had any CDs. They didn’t have any CDs. What they had were cassette tapes.

My mind was blown. I could not for the life of me understand why anyone who had a choice would spend perfectly good money on a cassette tape. I had grown up with that format in the 1980s. I remember that my first tape was Motley Crue’s Shout At the Devil. I also remember this:

Casette tapes sucked.

The sound was about thirty percent hiss. You couldn’t cue particular songs. And if the tape player was having a bad day, it would eat your purchase. As soon as the CD made its appearance, I hopped on that bandwagon and never looked back.

I’m guessing that this is some kind of artistic choice. That’s the only explanation that makes sense in a world with easy access to MP3s, CDs and vinyl records. If this is an artistic choice, can someone please explain it to me? What is the aesthetic reasoning behind the use of cassette tapes in a market with far superior formats? When and where did this trend begin?

Many thanks in advance.
posted by jason's_planet to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe because of the same reason vinyl came back about 10 years ago? The folks who were born in 1980 are turning 33 this year, meaning that the artifacts of their early childhoods may still hold some nostalgia, without the memories of just how difficult those artifacts were for day-to-day use.
posted by xingcat at 1:00 PM on February 10, 2013


The actual production of tapes is following on to a lot of imagery of cassettes which has been a popular design motif for a few years at least.
posted by Miko at 1:16 PM on February 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The nostalgia started about a decade ago. See this piece from 2002 by Hank Stuever. It references a Sarah Vowell piece, "Thanks for the Memorex," from her 2000 book Take the Cannoli.

On a practical level, a cassette might appeal to a musician who works on making an album only to have the audience skip to only one song and never listen to the whole thing.
posted by purpleclover at 1:17 PM on February 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


The trend started in the early 2000's when fewer and fewer vinyl records were being sold, which means the cost to produce vinyl went up sharply.

Cassette is a much cheaper medium to produce on and replicate in small and large quantities... the good news is that the quality of the tape out there is pretty high because there is not a lot of competition, so the results sound very good on a decent rig.

Countless publications have written articles about this, but at best, I think it's a mini-trend that will die a pretty quick death because a lot of the people who buy them, immediately rip them to mp3 and upload the material to music blogs for free anyway... which makes the only special or exclusive thing the form factor, which is pretty silly unless you are a deep music scenester trying to impress your friends with something you bought. ugh.

Also, I'm not kidding... Jack White is releasing his next single pressed on used X-Ray film.

sigh
posted by bobdow at 1:19 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"We're all disgruntled with the way CDs sound and how easily they get scratched, and we wanted an analog form of the music. Vinyl is expensive, so it became a DIY affair."
posted by acidic at 1:22 PM on February 10, 2013


All of the critiques you mention are completely valid, but mix-tapes have a certain romanticism to them that can't really be captured on other formats. Before the Internet allowed ubiquitous access to music, taping songs off the radio was sometimes the only way to hear it on a regular basis. Plus, the whole idea of curating a special collection for someone, etc.

Also, I was definitely one of the many who traded cassette copies of bootlegged concerts through the mail. Most other formats never really captured either of those two trends in the same way.
posted by Adam_S at 1:22 PM on February 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


In related news, vintage high-quality blank cassettes now bring a premium on eBay.
[I]t's common knowledge that beginning in the early 1990s the quality of cassette tape began declining. I understand Maxell doesn't even make cassettes any more, TDK doesn't offer the kind of quality product they once sold, and it's "hit and miss" with those brands still in business. While it's true that some tape decks seem to "like" a particular brand of tape more than others, a quick look around Tapeheads will yield countless posts from people who praise the quality of almost every older tape by just about every manufacturer, except the obvious bargain brands. The holy grail for any member of this site is to come across a stash of fresh, unopened, name brand tapes from the mid to late 1980s, regardless of whether it be a type I, II, or IV.
posted by Knappster at 1:50 PM on February 10, 2013


Heh, I used to buy TDK ADs and SAs by the boxload from Richer Sounds in London.

And yes I think it's an 80s nostalgia thing, not only mix-tapes, but cassette music/noise networks as well.
posted by carter at 2:11 PM on February 10, 2013


Most other formats never really captured either of those two trends in the same way.

I didn't start trading until it was all on CD. It does still happen and creates a similar audiophilic obsession.
posted by Miko at 2:22 PM on February 10, 2013


Not to sound too much like a cranky old man here, but kids today (even up to their early 20s) never actually used cassettes as their primary form of music storage. They don't "remember" how much they suck, what happens if they get damp or too warm or too cold, they don't understand that they get just a bit more hiss every time you play them, and that for non-digital media, you could actually get better quality by recording off the radio than you could from a copy-of-a-copy.

They don't have the experience of trying to extract 200 feet of your favorite tape from a player that "ate" it, then delicately rewinding it and praying it doesn't knot or break.

Consider it just one more form of false nostalgia, people cashing in on a "better" time that never really existed. :)
posted by pla at 2:38 PM on February 10, 2013 [11 favorites]


It's a way to seem like you're making something new artistically without actually having to make anything new artistically. And it's a race to be the first to find something 'new' to be nostalgic about because people like nostalgia. This is the era of Copy/Pasteism.

"Oh rad, I haven't seen a cassette tape since I was a kid, [therefore] I love this band!"
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:05 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


You’re operating under the assumption that everyone hates cassettes because you did and think it’s obvious that they suck. I didn’t hate cassettes so that changes the dynamic a bit. I was pretty ambivalent about CD’s and still am. CD’s are a fine, mostly practical, and completely generic form of data delivery.

Cassettes are a great size and form factor. I like the organic quality of the tape and even the inconsistency. There’s also something about the fact that they sort of seem disposable, you’re gonna put critical data on them.

It is a different sort of interaction, I can see the artistic side of it if you’re making the cassette part of the work, and in some way it always is. I could print up a bunch of books on hand made paper, or paint some works on the backs of street signs. Saying that you’d rather have an ebook or jpeg would be missing part of the point.
posted by bongo_x at 3:50 PM on February 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Maybe because of the same reason vinyl came back about 10 years ago? The folks who were born in 1980 are turning 33 this year, meaning that the artifacts of their early childhoods may still hold some nostalgia, without the memories of just how difficult those artifacts were for day-to-day use.

As someone born in 1980 and turning 33 this year, please, do not blame my generation for this one. I think it's more likely to be the kids born in 1990 and turning 23 this year. That's how vinyl got fetishized - it isn't nostalgia, it's vintage. (Also there are reasonable arguments for vinyl being preferable - other than forcing one to listen to an entire album [which could be accomplished by releasing your album as a single track on a CD] there's no good reason for cassettes.) I blame Urban Outfitters. See also Lisa Frank stickers - it's cute for those of us who grew up with them and all, but let's be honest: they were kinda shitty stickers.

(Sorry to also be a cranky old (wo)man, but really, it isn't the thirtysomethings doing this. At least not driving the market.)
posted by maryr at 4:16 PM on February 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The actual production of tapes is following on to a lot of imagery of cassettes which has been a popular design motif for a few years at least.

I've seen cassette tape necklaces at markets. I'm not a fan of it, but yeah it's another way to be nostalgic, and another way to make things inexpensively while still giving people a unique physical product they can buy at shows. You're going to remember a cassette as opposed to an MP3 download or a CD, or even vinyl (since pretty much every indie and many major bands release on vinyl now).
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:17 PM on February 10, 2013


My first 10 year of music were cassette tape years. The "Walkman" was a fetish object. The the mix tape was evolving from a personal storage strategy to a mode of communication. I was heavily into all of that, and clung to the medium even after the rise of the CD.

If anyone was going to be nostalgic for the cassette tape, it would be me. I'm not. Cassettes were awful, awful media, on all but a convenience basis. They fit in your pocket. They were easily reconfigured and relabeled. They were relatively resilient until they failed catastrophically, even if the sound quality was meh.

This can't be nostalgia. I can't believe it's "retro" fetishism. Maybe it's just a silly blip-trend of some kind but if it is at all durable or widespread then the explanation, in some way shape or form, has to be convenience.
posted by Broccoli Bear at 4:45 PM on February 10, 2013


It's because I finally threw all of mine out last year. Nothing makes something turn into a collector's item faster than throwing out yours.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:55 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aside from the good cultural and production reasons everyone has given, there is something to be said for the decaying audio effects in tape. Have you heard the newish band Casiotone for the Painfully Alone? Have you heard a cassette version of Disintegration or the bootleg Daniel Johnson tapes or Fugazi's Instrument? There's a certain pleasing quality to the hiss of an instantly degrading medium that benefits some musical aesthetics. Not for everyone, sure, but it's not just trendy.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:34 PM on February 10, 2013


Anecdotally, I'd add that I have a cassette copy of Remain In Light that's probably spent six years of it's life being kicked around the floor of various vehicles. And you know what. It still plays. All the way through. Drop a CD on the floor one damn time and what ya got there is shiny coaster that freezes up right in the middle of Once In a Lifetime.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:16 PM on February 10, 2013


Cassette tapes sucked.
The sound was about thirty percent hiss.


That's because the prerecorded cassettes from the '80s were all cheaply manufactured Normal Bias (type I) with no noise reduction. If you actually used good quality tapes with NR you could get fine sound, and everyone I knew had a tape deck capable of playing that, but the music industry insisted on the lowest (un)common denominator.

I remember the same feelings as you're having, back during the vinyl revival. How could anyone who remembered the awful quality of LP record albums in the late 1980s want to subject themselves to that again? And then I bought a few, for fun, and discovered that they were high-dollar items made very well, thick and heavy and sonically clean like the old Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs discs.

I suspect you'd find the same thing with modern cassette releases. In my limited experience with them, they're recorded on good quality tape stock, often with noise reduction.

As soon as the CD made its appearance, I hopped on that bandwagon and never looked back.
What is the aesthetic reasoning behind the use of cassette tapes in a market with far superior formats?


It's actually your fondness for CDs that marks you as an Old Fogey, like me. In the youth-driven world of indie pop music, the CD is dead, something associated with middle-aged guys showing off their "collections" of plastic jewel cases. Everybody listens to MP3s they downloaded from iTunes on their cell phones, and you can grab every song worth a listen in a few hours on broadband.

As a result, it's getting fairly common now to offer new albums -- to the extent that people even release coherent "albums" -- only as paid digital downloads, or (for the big fans) as LP vinyl records with free downloads. CDs exist only to send as promos to potential show venues. (Plenty of teens don't even own CD players anymore.) So the retro-fetishized quirkyness of a cassette makes sense in this context.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:25 PM on February 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The only reason to buy physical media at all right now is to fetishize music and fandom. It has nothing to do with sound quality. I wouldn't be surprised at any format being used, from cassettes to wax cylinders.
posted by empath at 3:58 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe because of the same reason vinyl came back about 10 years ago?

Vinyl hasn't 'come back' any more than cassettes have, In fact all physical media is dead or dying. A table of cassettes at a rock show now is like a booth selling artisan candles at a craft fair.
posted by Rash at 8:23 AM on February 11, 2013


Though it's kind of empirical that vinyl offers the best sound quality. I'm certain that's not at all the driver for the fetishization, but there is simply more sound information on a record to be transmitted. I can understand why many people - audiophiles really - remain seriously loyal to it, regardless of age.

Just recently I got a turntable for digitizing my LP's. It is astonishing to hear the difference after not playing a record for so many years. It reminded me both why people love LPs (such warmth, dimension) and why we hated them and got rid of them ($@ walked too hard and &*#% skipped the #*% record and ruined my recording AGAIN!)

Cassettes, not so much. What was good about them was all about the interface between user and object, not about the output.
posted by Miko at 10:27 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


This just arrived in my work inbox:

With SHARETAPES you can physically hand or post someone your favourite online playlists from services like YouTube, Spotify, 8tracks and more - just like you could with cassette and vhs tapes before the digital revolution.

Reviving the much loved “mix-tape” with a modern twist for today's smart phone and Internet connected population, with Sharetapes It is now easier than ever to share your favourite playlists and connect with your friends.

The cards arrive as blank tapes, ready to record by hitting “record” at www.sharetapes.com. Once recorded its time to start sharing!

posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:55 PM on February 11, 2013


With SHARETAPES you can physically hand or post someone your favourite online playlists from services like YouTube, Spotify, 8tracks and more - just like you could with cassette and vhs tapes before the digital revolution.

20 years ago the Saturday Night Live skit about Apple Post-It Notes was pretty funny, who knew a whole generation would take it seriously and use it as a road map.
posted by bongo_x at 9:36 PM on February 11, 2013


Cassettes force the listener to sit down and listen to a whole side, unlike other formats which allow you to skip around.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:40 AM on February 12, 2013


I disagree. As a member of Generation Cassette, I can say that I spent a lot of time fast-forwarding my cassettes to hear songs I liked better, or rewinding to replay my favorites. I was in constant communication with the playback mechanism and, for some favorite tapes, knew just how to hit it each time to get to that one 'best' spot on each side. The very power to mix tracks from different source LPs - a power previously limited to live DJs - comes from cassette technology. I'd say it's pretty far from forcing anyone to listen to anything, and was the precursor to the only slightly easier random access that CDs provided which allowed for super-easy shuffle.
posted by Miko at 11:21 AM on February 12, 2013


I'm getting the sense that this retro-fetishization is a product of the ubiquity of digital music. When decades' worth of music can be downloaded in an hour, the actual physical media are beside the point and a ripe field for experimentation. If any music you put out will be uploaded within a week, why not do albums on used X-ray film?

Many thanks to everyone who contributed!
posted by jason's_planet at 4:42 AM on February 13, 2013


Oh, absolutely. It's a phenomenon you find in other areas, as well. As technology changes, certain older technologies take on a new aesthetic appeal and people seek to preserve the unique qualities about it which have been lost. One example from print media might be the popularity of letterpress printing. Hand-knitting is bigger than ever, in an age where most of us wear mass-manufactured clothing and almost all knitting is done by machine. And so on. Add to that the need for musicians to continue to distinguish themselves in a glutted field, the importance of posture in music promotion, and the fact that social scenes revolve around music and prize this aesthetic communication as paramount, and you have the right mix for a vintage-revival ironic technology backlash of just about any kind. I first saw one of these worn around someone's neck in the 90s.
posted by Miko at 6:32 AM on February 13, 2013


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