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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT