Remember Music Cassette Tapes? They’re Back.
By democratizing music production, distribution and consumption, the 60-year-old medium has overcome its low-fi sound quality
Revivals of interest in vinyl records have become a fixture of popular culture over the past four decades. It could easily be argued that 33⅓ record revivalism has now lasted significantly longer than the vinyl album's actual reign as the most popular medium for listening to recorded sounds.
Music journalist Marc Masters has announced a revival of a less-mythologized medium in his new book, "High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape." Masters, whose work has appeared on NPR and in the Washington Post and Rolling Stone, traces the unfamiliar history of cassette tapes from their invention in the early 1960s to their peak in the 1980s and beyond.
Cassette Tapes' Lingering Appeal
And there is a beyond. Despite cassette tapes' status as a dinosaur technology, they have continued to flourish just below the surface of popular culture as a means of recording and listening to music.
"Tape isn't dead," Masters said in the aftermath of a brief and well-received East Coast tour in support of the book. "There are lot of young people interested in tapes for the same reason we were interested in them growing up."
"Almost everyone I spoke with on the tour said that the book made them think of some stories that had with tapes that they hadn't thought of in 20 or 30 years."
Just like the vibrant "lo-fi" (low fidelity) recording communities that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s, contemporary cassette enthusiasts appreciate the easy access the medium provides to making, programming and distributing music. A host of tape-only, independent labels such as Astral Spirits, Crash Symbols, and Geographic North thrive in a world where the behemoth record business of old is a shell of its late-20th century self.
Masters, in fact, worked with these and other tape labels to create a cassette that accompanies the book. This doesn't mean that interest in tapes is the domain simply of an esoteric music subculture. It remains there for everyone.
"It's such a universal subject in a weird way," Masters said of the appeal of cassette tapes. "So many people either grew up using tapes or found tapes in their parents' closet. Almost everyone I spoke with on the tour said that the book made them think of some stories that had with tapes that they hadn't thought of in 20 or 30 years."
Cassettes Made Some Genres Thrive
"High Bias" traffics in both thoughtful cultural analysis and nostalgia, offering readers a look back into a shared past and a series of new windows through which to think about cassette tapes.
"I didn't want it just to be a trip down memory lane. I wanted that to be part of it, for sure, but I wanted the history part of it to be things that people might not know about even if they were around for tapes," Masters said. "Maybe people didn't know how crucial they were to hip hop or to
heavy metal or how crucial they were to people internationally who couldn't record otherwise."
One of the book's most substantive contributions is its thoroughgoing description of the ways in which the cassette tape democratized music consumption, production and distribution.
"Before cassettes came along, there wasn't a cheap, easy, affordable way to control the music you listened to," Masters said. For the lion's share of listeners, the choices of radio station programmers and record labels determined what they listened to and in what sequence they heard it. Virtually every high school student of the 1980s and 1990s was the creator, recipient or inspiration for a homemade cassette mixtape or possibly all three.
The Grateful Dead Influence
"Having a cassette you could record on easily or make mixes on freed up people's ability to access music they weren't able to before," Masters said. "It was democratizing for artists who didn't have the connections to get on a record label or the money to record at an expensive studio. They could record it on tape, pass it around or even sell it on tape."
Fans of the Grateful Dead created a vibrant tape-trading culture built around the recording of the band's shows in the 1970s and 1980s. The centrality of tape trading to Grateful Dead fandom became so pronounced that the group eventually created a sanctioned space at their shows where tapers could plug into the band's soundboard to get the best quality recordings.
Masters unpacks the many layered world of Grateful Dead tapers in one of the book's best chapters.
Enter the Walkman
The portability of cassettes, particularly after the introduction of the Walkman portable cassette player in the early 1980s, freed listeners to bring their music with them. It also expanded the possibilities of music shaping the interior life of listeners, in much the same way that the emergence of the novel in the 18th century provided readers with a new, unspoken relationship with texts.
"Early Walkman users are quoted in newspapers as saying, 'This is my own soundtrack. I get to block out the world and listen to what I want to and be who I want to be,' " Masters said. Some early listeners even described their experiences as nearly sublime — an opportunity to inhabit the world while experiencing music only you could hear.
For artists, cassettes served as an easy entry point into recording their music, particularly in the 1980s.
For hip-hop artists, the cassette mixtape became the means by which new performers developed followings. Heavy Metal acts of the late 1970s and early 1980s such as Iron Maiden had trouble getting an audience with major record labels until homemade cassette recordings won them a cult following.
Lo-Fi Becomes High Art
For punk, alternative and indie acts, the low fidelity or "lo-fi" sound of cassette recordings became as much an aesthetic choice as a matter of financial necessity.
"Cassettes helped create the lo-fi aesthetic because it started as this thing that's cheaper and easier to use."
"I don't think one could have happened without the other, so there's a kind of interdependence," Masters said of the interplay between "lo-fi" artists such as Guided by Voices, Beat Happening and Daniel Johnston and the devices they used to record their music.
"There were certainly people interested before in home recordings," he added. "For those people, cassette tapes came along at the right time. But I also think cassettes helped create the lo-fi aesthetic because it started as this thing that's cheaper and easier to use. Eventually some artists realized, 'Hey, this is making my music sound a certain way, it has a certain aesthetic itself and I'm going to lean into that.' "
In the early '80s, major record labels tried to curb consumers' myriad uses of cassettes with their heavy-handed "Home Taping Is Killing Music" campaign. There's little to no evidence that taping songs off the radio or making mixtapes actually hurt the record business. Equally scarce is evidence that the "Home Taping Is Killing Music" slogan had much of an impact on consumer behavior.
"The industry has proven time and again that their first line of defense against piracy is to try to shame their own customers into not doing it," Masters said. He was speaking of both the early '80s "Home Taping is Killing Music" push as well as the major labels' campaign against file-sharing software in the 2000s. In both instances, the industry's multiyear efforts to shame fans were in vain.
The same cannot be said for Masters' multiyear effort on his book. He began "High Bias" in 2019 but took a year-and-a-half hiatus so he could safely guide his children's education at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He returned to the book with a fresh perspective on the subject — one that shines through in the concise and thoughtful way in which its diverse material is presented.