By Dave Thompson
It really was the most versatile home listening and recording system ever. Press one button, and you had music. Press two, and you could record it. At home, on the beach, in the car, on the train, even walking down the road, the cassette tape revolutionized the manner in which we consume - and share - music.
Long before CDs, cassettes offered a more convenient way to listen to music. And they (sometimes) gave us bonus tracks as well. Long before MP3s, they let us mix up our music for on-the-go variety. Long before a lot of the so-called miracles that digital sound dropped upon us, cassettes had already done it.
You want an album that doesn’t skip or scratch? Play a cassette. You want to make a mix for a loved one of all your favorite songs? Make a cassette. You want to relive a gig over and over? Bring your cassette. You want not to spend a couple of hundred bucks on a thumbnail-sized player that the dog will probably swallow tomorrow? Buy a cassette.
Cassettes: How did we ever live without them? And why would we even want to?
Well, let us count the ways.
The cassette first appeared on the market in the mid-1960s, the love child of the music industry’s drive to popularize stereo sound, and a few manufacturers’ urge to compete with the newly introduced 8-track. Now, you want to talk dinosaurs, the 8-track fulfills all criteria, including the tyrannosaurus foot stomp that was the sound of it changing “sides.” The cassette, though, was durable, elegant, convenient, tiny — you could fit four into the space that an 8-track consumed, and there were no thunder lizards stomping through the music, either.
Initially, cassettes — like 8-tracks — were aimed almost exclusively at the lucrative in-car entertainment market, with the different car manufacturers lining up behind one format or the other. That particular war would not be won until the mid-1970s or so, but by that time, the cassette’s ambitions had spilled far, far beyond soundtracking your latest road trip.
Now they wanted to soundtrack everything, and once Dolby introduced its noise reduction system, they did so, not only consigning 8-tracks to the junkheap, but also moving in on vinyl. By the late 1970s, the two formats were all but neck and neck in the marketplace; by the early 1980s, and the introduction of the Walkman personal cassette player, tapes were actually inching ahead. By the end of the decade, a lot of new singles weren’t even being released on vinyl any longer. They were coming out on cassette.
Of course, the cassette’s reign would not last long — the CD saw to that. But still tapes outlived vinyl in their own particular conflict; it would be the late 1990s before you could truly say the cassette had succumbed to its silver disc rival, and select titles were still appearing in the early 2000s, even in the United States (they survived even longer in other territories).
What that means is for those generations that came of music-buying age between 1980 and 1995 at the bare minimum, the cassette is as sacred a nostalgic touchstone as vinyl is for the generations that came before.
And now it’s back.
Not for everybody. If vinyl (despite all the hype and hope associated with its “revival”) is a niche market, cassettes are barely even a slither. Part of that, of course, is because so few cassettes are actually being released today — although, having said that, some 20,000 new titles were released worldwide last year, including new albums by The Who, Billie Eilish, Madonna and Queen. Independent cassette releases have their own Cassette Store Day rival to Record Store Day, and that too has been ticking over nicely. Over 100 stores nationwide participated in the October 2019 event; over 100 exclusive new releases were made available.
Wait! There’s more! Almost 220,000 tapes were sold in the U.S. in 2018; 80,000 in the U.K. in 2019. Barely worth commenting upon in the grand scheme of things — there was a time when a new album might sell that many copies in a day. But in the hyper-reality of modern sales figures, even a baby blip is better than nothing, and what none of these industry figures ever seem to take into consideration is what’s happening on the used side of things.
In collecting terms, the cassette has never really taken off — why, nobody seems to know. Eight-tracks and reel-to-reels, after all, have long had a devoted following, and a wealth of other discarded formats at least pick up fans on the strength of their novelty. Cassettes, though: Maybe it’s because they’re everywhere, forming veritable mountains in thrift stores and basements; maybe it’s because they have always felt kind of disposable.
Mechanical difficulties have always been an issue. With so many moving parts involved, it doesn’t take much for a tape to suddenly reveal itself to be a rare underwater recording of the Chipmunks. And while a collector might spend an entire night attempting to repair a broken 8-track tape, or sonically cleansing a dirty LP, have you ever actually tried to repair a cassette that required anything more than a quick untangle? For the vast majority of people, cassettes were ephemeral, temporary, something to throw in the back of the car, or have piled up on the passenger seat. And if the tape machine ate one, then into the trash with it.
And maybe that is still their appeal. There are cassettes out there that the market in general regards as “rare.” There are others that have universally recognized high prices attached. But there are several million more which, even in a rack marked $1 each, will not move an inch until doomsday — unless someone wanders along and thinks, “My goodness, I’ve not heard that album in ages.” And because it’s only a buck they’ll buy it. Maybe grab a few more as well. Take them home, dust off the old player, sit back and….
The strange thing about cassettes is, they really don’t sound bad. Not as bad as popular mythology would have you believe, and sometimes an awful lot better as well. True, problematic sonics were one of the key issues with the old pre-Dolby tapes — and even later, in some cases. But in general, and certainly by the early 1970s, store-bought, pre-recorded new release cassettes generally sounded as good as the equipment you played them on — much like vinyl, in fact. And, with care, they were just as durable as records — “care” meaning not touching the tape itself with your fingers, not storing tapes next to a radiator, giving your player the occasional clean — the usual, common sense stuff.
They didn’t scratch, they didn’t stick, and while constant plays could degrade the tape somewhat, well, that’s no different from vinyl, either. In fact, that might be one of the reasons why collectors do regard cassettes with some distrust. Without actually sitting and playing through the entire tape, how do you grade them?
The fact is, you can’t. True, if the outer casing (that is, the plastic shell that actually contains the tape) is pristine, then chances are, you’re OK. But beyond that, a lot of people “test” the tape by winding it an inch or so with a pencil or fingertip. That works, but only if you still buy used cars on the strength of having kicked the tires a few times. It doesn’t tell you if the tape is crinkled up or twisted somewhere deep within its innards, or even if it’s come off the spool at the other end. And, if you’ve only paid a dollar, then maybe it’s a chance worth taking.
But a lot of used cassettes, in recent years, have started to inch out of dollar territory. And that’s because people are buying them again. True, it’s mostly the “big” bands: the rock and pop classics, or those that are collectable in vinyl and even CD formats. But that’s how these things always start.
No matter that that copy of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid cassette had sat unsold for a dollar for the past five years. The last time I saw it, it was up to $10, and the next time I looked, it was gone. Double the price for a Roadrunner reissue of Budgie’s Squawk, or the Rykodisc version of the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! A couple of bucks might still get you the Tin Machine live album (as compared to the $100 or so that the vinyl currently goes for), but you’re up to $30 or more for a cassette copy of Bowie’s Reality, the last of his albums to be released on cassette in the U.S.
Move into the realm of the promo cassettes that were once serviced to every functioning music journalist in the country, and the prices can really become eye-watering — especially if you’re one of those writers who would either junk, or tape over, the promos as soon as the “real thing” arrived.
Again, the vast majority are landfill at best. But a little time spent online will reveal that others are certainly in the double-digit range, and there’s a few whose values swoop into the thousands.
True, it must be stressed that those are selling prices, rarely backed up by any actual purchases. But clearly, someone out there thinks there’s a market, and who’s to say they’re wrong? Cassette promos of Radiohead’s OK Computer were distributed superglued into a cheap Walkman — good luck finding one of those selling for under $100.
And so on, because what this all adds up to is, there is currently a very buoyant market in used cassettes, and it’s probably not going anywhere. Again, the generation that grew up spending its pocket money on cassettes feels exactly the same way about their old purchases as their older siblings do about vinyl: the thrill of opening the case for the first time, the ritual of pressing the buttons and adjusting all the switches — depending, of course, on whether your player had any: chrome, metal or normal; MPX in or out; Dolby on or off, autoplay, Megabass. This isn’t a cassette player, it’s Cape Canaveral!
Sitting on the subway into work, with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music playing through your Walkman, while everyone else is listening to Phil Collins and Dire Straits. Compiling the ultimate 90-minute Rolling Stones collection, and then having to redo it because you forgot the song you wanted in the middle. And then accidentally taping over it because someone just loaned you the new Yes LP and, though you know that home taping is piracy, because there it says so on the inner sleeve (alongside a very smart cassette skull and crossbones cartoon), what difference will one fewer copy really make to their fortune?
The seeds of the MP3 download revolution were sewn with the birth of the cassette and, certainly in the early 1980s, the music industry was as dead sent against cassettes as it ever was against Napster. The British band Bow Wow Wow even wrote a song about it, “C-30, C-60, C-90 Go!” “Off the radio I get constant flow,” they sang. “Hit it, pause it, record and play.” Their record label must have loved them.
So yeah, cassettes are back. Not big-time, not monster-munch size, nothing for you to worry your little head about. You can just carry on shouting into a bucket every time another box set comes out, and there’s a cassette of extra odds and ends in there (thank you, Paul McCartney and The Cult), or you read about Cassette Store Day and discover that someone else has reissued a bunch of old demos, and you can only have them on tape, or … or … or.
Because yes, you are correct. Nobody buys cassettes anymore. Except, perhaps, the people that do. And there’s more of them than you want to think. So why not just put all that energy to a useful purpose, and go pick up a decent used boombox? You know you want to.