Skip to main content

Can cassette tapes be cool again?

By Mark Coleman, Special to CNN
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Mon September 30, 2013
Today is Cassette Store Day, which its organizers hope will attract you back to the format popular in the '70s and '80s. Sure, it had its frustrations -- unspooling or twisting tape, occasionally muffled sound -- but there was also the mix tape, staple of budding romances,and now a culty coolness as bands like the Flaming Lips and Grape Soda issue their music on cassettes. Today is Cassette Store Day, which its organizers hope will attract you back to the format popular in the '70s and '80s. Sure, it had its frustrations -- unspooling or twisting tape, occasionally muffled sound -- but there was also the mix tape, staple of budding romances,and now a culty coolness as bands like the Flaming Lips and Grape Soda issue their music on cassettes.
HIDE CAPTION
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
How we've listened to music
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark Coleman: September brought Cassette Store Day. Why celebrate this? Let's play along
  • Organizers wanted to stimulate a resurgence of cassette tapes, first sold in the '60s, he says
  • He says cassette tapes warred with vinyl and 8-track tapes for dominance, sometimes winning
  • Coleman: Their quality improved, though they fell from favor. But still a cultural touchstone

Editor's note: Mark Coleman is the author of "Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines and Money."

(CNN) -- The cassette tape is back! Or at least this is what the organizers of Cassette Store Day, held in September, would have us believe. Cassettes? Really? Let's play along, if only for nostalgia's sake.

Fifty years after the prototype cassette was introduced at the 1963 Berlin Radio Show, a group of independent labels that release new cassettes have pulled together the global event celebrating and, they hope, stimulating the resurgence of prerecorded tapes.

The day was observed, according to the group's website, at roughly 100 retail stores and music venues in the U.S., Europe, Canada and South America, with tie-ins, new cassette releases and live performers pushing new tapes. Cassette releases from established bands like At the Drive-In and Flaming Lips were vended, as well as tapes from underground artists like Grape Soda and Gold Bears on the Hope for the Tape Deck label.

Mark Coleman
Mark Coleman

Anyone who remembers fumbling with a cassette deck while driving or listening as a tape unspooled and self-destructed in the tape deck or having to insert index finger or pen into the cassette in a usually vain attempt to rewind the hopelessly twisted tape must be asking a simple question: Why?

In the seamless age of digital music, when seemingly every song ever recorded is available at the stroke of a few computer keys, why would anyone revive such a clunky and outmoded physical format?

But consider: Even with the convenience and sheer abundance of music stored on MP3 files, cassettes (and vinyl) offer tangible and tactile pleasures that aren't readily available in the digital world. There's a sizable, and growing, subset of consumers who lust for musical objects that they can hold in their hands (and their hearts) as well as their ears.

Anyone who remembers fumbling with a cassette deck while driving or listening as a tape unspooled and self-destructed in the tape deck ... must be asking a simple question: Why?

"Metal and punk and noise people never stopped releasing cassettes," says Scott Seward. He is a music critic and owner of John Doe Jr. Used Records and Books in Greenfield, Massachusetts. "Fans of that music have always collected tapes. Same with jam band and Grateful Dead fans until recent years. It's still a common format for a lot of Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian street or folk music too, because cassettes are so cheap to reproduce."

It's true. Cassettes have always been an alternative and were for many years something of an underdog in the musical format wars. Not long after prerecorded cassettes emerged in the vinyl-dominated marketplace, the 8-track tape format eclipsed them in popularity. That was largely because the Ford Motor Co. started offering 8-track players as an option on some of its cars beginning in 1966.

The automobile would power sales of the 8-track format past the cassette in the music-mad '60s and '70s. Drivers could insert and remove the bulky 8-tracks with one hand. By 1975, incredibly, 8-track tapes were second only to vinyl records in terms of sales figures.

Cassettes had already been a tough sell to audiophiles because until the advent of Dolby noise reduction in the '70s, their sound quality was muffled compared with vinyl records. Gradually that improved, just as new tape playback options emerged.

Even before the Walkman, the portable stereos known as boom boxes boosted the popularity of cassettes in the urban areas where these hulking radio/tape players (aka ghetto blasters) were most often used. Boom boxes made music consumption a public event (often whether the public wanted it or not) while advancing the notion of portability.

But consumers began to demand portable music players. In late 1979, Sony introduced the proto-Walkman. Retailing for $199, the Soundabout was a 14-ounce playback-only device that came with headphones and used standard-size cassettes. By 1981, the smaller and cheaper Walkman II was available.

Hello, 80s? We miss you!

When it comes to recorded music formats, portable equals personal. So it's no accident that the Walkman and similar devices became known as personal stereos in the early '80s. Soon, Walkman headphones were as ubiquitous as boom boxes on city streets.

Thanks to the Walkman, the boom box and the cassette (and later the CD), sales of vinyl records plummeted during the '80s. In 1981, more than twice as many vinyl records as prerecorded cassettes were sold. By 1984, the numbers had flipped, and cassette sales outpaced vinyl for the first time.

Despite the unsuccessful "Home Taping Is Killing Music" campaign of the early '80s, the ability to record one's own tapes was always a huge part of the cassette's appeal. Homemade mix tapes became a cultural touchstone for a generation (or two), functioning as diaries or journals and figuring in courtship rituals (see Rob Sheffield's affecting memoir "Love Is A Mix Tape"). When cassettes faded from the scene in the early '90s in the conquering wake of the CD, something unique -- personal -- got left behind.

Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten. The pull of nostalgia is not the only motivation behind the recent cassette cult resurgence, but memories and recorded music are deeply -- some say neurologically -- intertwined.

"There is that True Cult aspect," Seward says. "It's an exclusivity thing. Cassettes just seem like a cooler thing to have for sale at your punk or noise show than a CDR. Black metal and power electronics sound fab on tape, though. Same with Miami bass music. I still listen to a lot of metal and rap on tape, and I make mix tapes from vinyl that sound amazing."

Even if Cassette Store Day fails to bring prerecorded cassettes back to commercial prominence, the event made a telling point about our music consumption. Despite the digital revolution, if you dust off those outmoded physical formats like cassette tapes and vinyl records down in the basement, they produce more than memories: They play music. They still work. Their appeal, however sentimental, is stronger than mere nostalgia.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Coleman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT