An Ode to the Cassette

 

A Cassette, yesterday

I’m not one to quote television programmes often – least of all Family Guy – but I saw an episode the other day that reminded me of the joy of perhaps my favourite technological invention. In the episode, Stewie hands his babysitter a mix-tape that he has made. “The quality’s kind of sucky, but the songs really express my feelings” he tells her sheepishly. I suppose the whole concept of the mix-tape has become this clichéd – and as obsolete as the technology surrounding it. But we shouldn’t forget the importance of the cassette and how it helped shape the music maker/ music consumer interface; a technology that, on its release, was heralded as the destroyer of the music industry – the skull in a newly designed skull-and-crossbones motif.

 

So in this new epoch where the music industry lambasts illegal downloading, it is important to look back at the legacy left by the cassette, to realise that such nihilistic notions of ‘total destruction’ are overreactions at best and a cynical attempt to stagnate technological and creative progression at worst. Illegal downloading will not ‘kill music’ any more than the cassette did. It is fitting that torrent site ‘The Pirate Bay’ have adopted the skull cassette as part of their logo, highlighting this hyperbole.

 

So, the cassette itself. Released in the mid-60s, improved quality and gained popularity through the 70s and 80s, only to decline in use through  the 90s. But in its short (commercial) life, i think it did something more. For it was one of the first musical-technological advances to hand a level of power/ control to the listener rather than to the performer.

If one considers earlier inventions, they all seem to hand power to the performer. The phonograph allowed musicians to record their music and reach a larger audience. The microphone and amplifier again gave more power (literally) to performers and increased the potential size of audiences at live performances[1]. Essentially, these inventions increased the number of listeners in the artist:audience ratio.

The cassette gave a power to the listener. Now they, through recording existing music onto cassette could choose the music, choose the order of songs, juxtapose their own disparate musical tastes onto their own mini musical biography written (and rewritten) on magnetic tape. Here, the more utopian facets of post-modernity were allowed to play out in very individualised ways. One could choose exactly the tracks that appealed – there was no peer-pressure (or less anyway) and no need to display musical taste in an overt, visual manner. The cassette itself would always maintain its solemn, poker-faced exterior – changed only by the meticulous (or otherwise) track listing notes provided by the mix-tape creator at his or her discretion and to his or her specifications.

The accompanying technology of the personal cassette player further aided this feeling of insular, individualised music selection. Again the utopian face of this act of music listening was immortalised (?!) in song by the ‘great’ Cliff Richard in the song ‘wired for sound’. Click on Cliff below to be transported to a video for this song:

'Wired for Sound'........ of course you are, Cliff

Walking around with a head full of music

Cassette in my pocket, and I’m gonna use it.

Richard’s own (I suspect) band-wagon-jumping extolling of this technology aside[2], this rhyming couplet does speak volumes about the change in music consumption the cassette helped to bring forth. Music (re) turned to ‘the head’ of the individual. Even the bedroom theorised/ lamented by Theodore Adorno shrunk to the size of a pair of headphones. But the act of listening to music became more active. Good old Cliff is going to use that cassette. Presumably he has ‘made it’, choosing the tracks he has predetermined he would like to listen to whilst roller-skating through an abandoned shopping centre with his shell-suited ‘gang’, or water skiing in a pair of unfathomably short, lemon yellow swimming shorts (you really need to see the video for ‘wired for sound’ for this to make sense.)

There is a whole other avenue that the cassette opened up; that of the home studio. The humble four-track cassette recorder planted the seed of totally independent recording and helped give a technological validity to the ubiquitous notion of the ‘bedroom musician’. The cassette tape was a pioneer in forcing these two disparate worlds – the home and the studio, the amateur and the professional, the live and the recorded, the ‘valueless’ and the ‘valuable’, the ephemeral and the timeless – together, blurring the boundaries between them. Now, through a series of advances too multifarious to go into here, ‘the bedroom’ has been transformed from a niche aesthetic to a legitimate musical space, potentially as authoritative (sonically and artistically) as the ‘recording studio’. I might even go as far as to say that, in many cases, this dichotomy has been blurred so significantly as to no longer exist? Maybe not quite yet in the minds of many stalwarts (or those with a vested interest in the maintenance of the ‘old regime’), but it is certainly on its way.

The cassette was (is) not just about individualising music and giving power of selection to the individual, its significance to collectives cannot be underestimated either. The mix-tape has been of crucial significance in areas of the world where the unencumbered pursuit of music has been made impossible, either through economic or political factors. Certainly in Cuba, where ‘foreign music’ was broadly considered illegal to own until well into the 1990s (many a horror story still circulates concerning people being arrested for simply owning Beatles albums) and even today, with the stringent  US economic blockade still firmly in place precluding the purchase of most foreign music, the cassette – often recorded by members of Cuba’s diasporic generation and sent back to friends and family on the island – has been a crucial tool in music dissemination. I’m sure that similar situations could be recounted in Soviet Bloc countries and numerous other places.    

Perhaps the inevitable bookend to the power of the cassette is not the CD that usurped it in commercial terms, but the i-pod; specifically the shuffle function of the i-pod. For now we have essentially an infinite mix-tape with almost limitless permutations. Yet the same level of active selection is removed – not entirely, as the listener must choose, in bulk (and with vastly increased scope and quantity) the store of music, but that individualised, specific selection is made ‘random’ by the device, not deliberately by the listener. Now, I don’t really want to get into High Fidelity territory of “there’s a lot of rules to making a mix-tape” – I have thrown together mix-tapes without much thought or cohesion (often breaking the cardinal rule of not putting two songs by the same artist back to back). Nor do I wish to indulge in the luddite rhetoric of ‘new technology is bad’. I do enjoy listening to my i-pod on shuffle (does it know – sometimes it seems to – what song I’d like to hear next?). But that same level of ownership, and the power it gives to this listener, was (and still is) unique to the cassette.

The cassette didn’t kill the music industry, much less ‘music’ itself, as the doom-mongers (mostly from within the industry) thought it would. The cassette came, it got popular, something new came along, it got replaced. The music industry acted as it always does when something new comes along: fear, anger, acceptance, incorporation. The same will happen with downloading. If the music industry (actually such as term in itself seems strangely anachronistic) is to ‘survive’, it will have to incorporate this new technology, or it deserves to die.

Perhaps, and more informed people than i will know better, it already has died. What we are witnessing now are the final death-throws of the monolithic industry. Certainly the traditional ‘gatekeepers’ involved with recording and distributing music seem archaic – as obsolete as the cassette – in the world of myspace. Facebook, Twitter et al seem to be taking the place of the promoter/ advertiser. Maybe, this time, a technology will kill the industry. The last word on this thought, I leave to NOFX:

Gonna fight against the mass appeal 

gonna kill the seven-record deal 

making records that have more than one good song 

Dinosaurs will slowly die and I do believe that no-one will cry 

I’m just fucking glad I’m gonna be there to watch the fall

Prehistoric music industry

Three feet in la brea tar

Extinction never felt so good!


[1] Although there is something to be said regarding the microphone for making the act of singing a more intimate experience. Whereas before the microphone, singing relied, for the most part, on bellowing, the mic allowed the (illusion of a) more ‘intimate’ singing style. The crooner attempted to make an individual connection with the listener, but even here, the aim was to repeat this individual connection with as many listeners as possible.

[2] He is also full of praise for the radio in this song, ironic really as he now rallies against the medium for not playing any of his songs!

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