Last week I saw that songwriter Dune Boy released his new album “We can go there if you want?” on cassette. It’s not something that happens often, CDs are run of the mill but still around and there’s a lot of effort goes into vinyl releases, collections etc. Cassettes are, in my opinion, the unfairly maligned format in modern music – in part because they shaped modern expectations of music listening so much.
The cartoon posted with the last blog post (“What matters when we listen“) pokes fun at vinyl for it’s expense and inconvenience, but the opposite is what we expect from music pretty much because of cassettes. When Sony released the walkman in 1979 they brought with it the first taste of proper music portability, no one was walking round carrying vinyl and CDs were still three years away. Whilst CDs were portable they were less than stellar when it came to portable listening, at least when carried around in your hand or pocket. The walkman gave you a personal soundtrack through your headphones, an experience that baked in the habits of millions who now have a library in their pocket either in mp3 format or streaming. The first music in your pocket was the cassette.
Cassettes also introduced the playlist, or at least the mixtape. Many hours spent by people carefully curating collections of songs to suit their own tastes and styles. Everyone becoming their own DJs, dispensing with tracks they didn’t like and cherry picking what they loved.
Hand in hand with this ability to record to blank cassettes also came music piracy, well before people were ripping CDs and sharing mp3 files online, copying and bootlegging was alive and well with the humble cassette. I still barely recognise the full version of Nine Inch Nails “The Fragile” album because I got a bootleg copy from a friend who chopped a few tracks as he couldn’t fit the run time all on one tape otherwise. There were also many attempts at taking songs from the radio, trying to stop and start to cut out the DJ nonsense between.
So many modern music expectations, portability, customizability, playlisting came along with the cassette and whilst these were later adopted on other mediums the humble little cassette introduced them. It’s probably because of the fact that these attributes became so in built into our experience of music that cassettes get short shrift now. They’ve essentially made themselves redundant as anything other than a niche collectible or a curio. Since they lost the place as king of portable listening they don’t really win out anywhere.
But for me it’s great to see them still getting releases, and long may that continue, although we cassette fans may have some issues if pencils fall by the wayside as well.