Those who were raised with a tape deck have fond memories of mixtapes, also known as compilation tapes in the UK. They recall the process of selecting and arranging songs from records or CDs to convey a specific message. In Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, the main character, Rob Fleming, had a strict set of guidelines for creating a mixtape: “You cannot have two songs in a row by the same artist, unless they were intentionally paired, and… there are numerous rules to follow.”
“My first girlfriend and I had a cassette,” remembers Britt Daniel, frontman of Spoon. “She’d put a song on it, then give it to me. I’d keep hold of it for a couple of days, then put a song on and give it back to her. They were all message songs – my communication skills were not top-notch, but it was very sweet.”
Adrian Quesada of Black Pumas explains, “In the past, I would attempt to impress by showcasing a diversity of music genres. I had some knowledge of jazz, so I made sure to include it. I also included a few ballads and some hip-hop that I thought would appeal to the ladies, like A Tribe Called Quest.”
I had a collection of tapes featuring indie music from the mid-80s and older psychedelic tunes. During my summer job at Boots in Slough, I would sneak into the office and use the photocopier to create collages out of book covers and postcards. I would then use these collages as covers for the J-cards, with the series title “Never Say No to Perfect Popcorn” and a numbered entry, and send them to the person I felt deserved it the most.
Mixtapes were only one example of how cassettes revolutionized the music industry, as discussed in two recently published books – Unspooled by Rob Drew and High Bias by Marc Masters. The cassette format instilled a sense of apprehension about piracy in the music industry, but also played a significant role in making music more accessible globally.
In underdeveloped countries, where large record labels had a dominant market share, cassettes were used to distribute music that had no appeal to mainstream companies. This helped to establish new genres, as seen with Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, who started as a wedding singer selling cassettes at market stalls before gaining recognition from western tape collectors and gaining a global following. Cassettes also played a significant role in the popularity of hip-hop and thrash metal, and even created a small economy for go-go music in Washington DC. To this day, cassettes continue to be the preferred format for lo-fi and experimental music.
During a video call, Masters explains that cassettes have various functions. These include providing listeners and artists with the freedom to create their own musical experiences, as well as the ability to share and exchange them. They allowed for a more personalized way of listening to music, rather than being subject to the control of others. Additionally, cassettes were crucial for musicians as they could distribute their music without needing approval from labels or spending money on costly studio sessions.
In addition to being a means of listening to music, these devices can also serve as weapons against oppression. According to Drew, the popularity of cassettes in certain countries during the 1970s and 1980s had political implications, particularly in authoritarian regimes like the USSR and Poland. Cassettes were not only used to distribute music, but also propaganda.
Cassettes were not created without accompanying hardware. They were widely adopted by the hip-hop community after the development of the boom box and car stereo. In his book, Masters explores how car services in New York marketed themselves by offering the latest mixtapes with personalized shout-outs from popular MCs. The Walkman made it possible for individuals to listen to music on-the-go, making it a popular choice for mixtapes. Additionally, the Tascam Portastudio, an affordable recording device that allowed for mixing four tracks onto a cassette, revolutionized home recording. Even artists like Bruce Springsteen utilized the Portastudio, releasing his demo recordings as the album “Nebraska” after deciding that full studio versions with his band could not capture the desired mood.
The popularity of the format was influenced by a combination of generosity and practicality by its creator. The initial “compact cassette” was designed by Lou Ottens from the Dutch company Philips and was introduced in 1963 (originally marketed for recording speech, not music). Its main advantage was not its sound quality, but its convenience and simplicity compared to previous reel-to-reel tapes. In order to ensure its widespread adoption, Philips licensed the technology to other companies.
Is Philips considered the most significant company in the history of recorded music because they created both the cassette and CD? According to Masters, there is a strong argument for this. It’s interesting that they would want to develop the CD, despite knowing it could potentially replace the cassette. It shows their adaptability and willingness to embrace change. Many companies become too attached to their initial success and fail to see the potential for disruption, like Blockbuster holding onto VHS rentals for too long.
There have been claims in recent years about a resurgence of the cassette. However, these claims are exaggerated. While cassette sales in the UK have been on the rise for the past decade, they only amounted to 195,000 in 2022 according to the BPI. In the US, sales also increased by 28% to 440,000 out of 79.89 million physical album sales. Most of these sales are from major record labels, which annoys Masters. He explains that the main reason for releasing pre-recorded cassettes is their affordability, but major labels take advantage of this by selling them at inflated prices.
However, he acknowledges that the major record labels are contributing to the continued production of cassettes, which in turn benefits underground artists and labels who rely on cassettes as their main source of income. He is willing to tolerate some hipster culture if it supports the more significant aspect of the situation.
Fernando Aguilar, one of the individuals involved in the prominent end, is a co-founder of Stay Tough, a California-based label that focuses on pop-punk music released on cassette tapes. This label originated from his previous work with a hardcore/power violence/grindcore label. Aguilar explains that for the hardcore scene, the lo-fi sound is a natural fit, so the format of the music (cassette, CD, vinyl) doesn’t make much difference. However, for emo and pop-punk, there is a strong nostalgia factor involved. Aguilar primarily works with screamo bands who prefer to release their music on cassettes, as it adds to the lo-fi aesthetic.
The economics of working on cassette for a label like Stay Tough is much more feasible. The typical run for cassettes is 50 copies, and reaching the break-even point is considered a great success. This is due to the fact that the main expense is blank tapes, rather than expensive vinyl pressing. Currently, Aguilar pays $1.16 (92p) per blank tape and 50 cents for a case. In comparison, vinyl typically requires a minimum run of 100 units and comes at a much higher cost. For example, the Musicol Recording Studio in Columbus, Ohio charges $1,345 (£1,079) for 100 12in records with plain white paper sleeves. Additionally, by using cassettes, Aguilar avoids the long wait times for vinyl pressing plants (currently six months at Musicol). He is able to go from receiving the recording from the band to having cassettes ready to sell in just two weeks, and can sell them for prices ranging from $4 (£3.20) to $8 (£6.40) each.
The popularity of cassettes has even reached the underground scene. Aguilar observed a surge in interest in cassettes after the release of the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy, where the character Peter Quill frequently listened to an old mixtape. In 2014, the TV series Over the Garden Wall also featured a mixtape. As a result, there has been an increase in people using and collecting tapes.
Stay Tough also has a Bandcamp page where you can download their music. When asked if Aguilar believes that people actually listen to his bands on cassette, he chuckles and says, “Not really. Most people buy them to support the musicians and for the album cover. And you have to admit, it looks pretty cool. As for whether younger kids actually play them, that’s still up for discussion. Personally, I don’t think so.”
Although the cassette may not hold the same romantic value as vinyl or offer the same sound quality as a CD, it persists in popularity. As long as there is an underground music scene and individuals who appreciate physical copies and cannot afford to produce vinyl or prefer to have control over recording and distribution, the cassette will remain relevant. Contrary to popular belief, home taping did not destroy music; it actually aided in its survival.
The book “High Bias” by Marc Masters (published by The University of North Carolina Press) is available for purchase at guardianbookshop.com for £20.95. Please note that delivery fees may apply. Thank you for supporting the Guardian and Observer.