The Incomprehensible Appeal of The Cassette

Cassette tapes are having a rise in popularity and it makes no sense at all.

There are things that constantly baffle me, and high on the list is the strangely revived appeal of cassettes, be they audio or video.

Now, I certainly get the appeal of retro media. The revival of vinyl as a going concern makes a lot of sense to me, and not simply on the basis of sound quality (which I’ll say seems certainly warmer on vinyl, but is not so much better that I think there is such a gargantuan audible void between that and CD). The vinyl record has an authenticity that CDs and, more to the point, digital files lack – the format allows for the artwork to pop and for gatefolds, inner sleeves and inserts to further develop that visual appeal. A fold-out poster in a vinyl album has substance – something that you can put on the wall, as opposed to a poster in a CD that barely reaches the size of a magazine cover. Coloured vinyl and picture discs, shaped vinyl and all manner of other novelty variations make this the perfect format for collectors – it’s almost as though it had been designed with that in mind. CDs struggled to ever match the aesthetics of the vinyl release.

But the current rush to revive cassette tapes as a format for new releases… now, that leaves me scratching my head. Cassettes, back in the day, were the red-headed stepchild of musical formats – artwork that was either cropped, stretched or simply plonked in the centre of the cover with plenty of space either end and tiny sleeves that offered fold-out lyric sheets and production credits that even an eagle-eyed teen would struggle to read. Even the best cassette artwork was pokey and tiny, lacking the physical presence of the LP cover. And it came housed in a nasty plastic case that looked cheap and grotty and would crack if you looked at it too hard.

Unlike the LP or the CD, the tape did not allow you to select individual tracks, which might have pleased some concept album creators, but was generally a bit of a pain, forcing the listener to fast forward, stop, play and repeat until they found the track of their choice. And tape was a horrid format – not only did it often come with a distinct hiss and lower sound quality than anything else, but it was prone to becoming entangled in your player. At best, this meant pulling the tape out of the player and respooling it with a pencil; at worst, it mutilated the tape, meaning that a section would have that familiar crunching sound. And then there was the warping, the snapping and the snagging.

I never got the appeal of the pre-recorded tape, even when they were on sale everywhere. If you wanted to listen to an album on the move, you could just record it on a blank tape. Hey, you could fit two full LPs onto a single C-90. or you could compile your favourite tracks for parties or playing on a Walkman or cheaper knock-off. That, I understood. But pre-recorded tapes, costing the same as an LP? That seemed pointless. I owned a few cassette tapes, especially when it was the format of choice for underground bands, but I was never enamoured of the format.

Videotape makes a bit more sense. For a start, it was the main format – the only format unless you indulged in more expensive and less available options like laserdisc – and so people invariably have more of a nostalgia for the format. And the cover art was both larger and less compromised – there was no sense of the sleeve being a half-arsed version of a better edition. Of course, videotape was indulged in and collected because that was pretty much all we had, and so we put up with the snapped and damaged tapes, the worn-out ex-rental copies and all the other issues that dogged videotape. As soon as DVD emerged, I was happy to kick VHS to the curb – DVD, notably, did not have any of the cover size issues that faced CDs, and so could recreate VHS sleeve art almost completely.

For me, and for most people I suspect, tape was something that they were happy to see the back of. But not everyone. Now, I understand the collector’s market for old VHS – these are, after all, the original editions of these movies. Be it a desire to own all the banned video nasties in their original editions, or to find obscure titles that have still not appeared on disc – or to simply want to collect movies based on the extraordinary artwork that can be found on the covers… it makes a certain sense. But to want to buy new VHS releases? perhaps as investments – because these limited editions that immediately sell out will presumably increase in value – but for any other reason? That seems incomprehensible.

But at least VHS has a nostalgic vibe to it and a fan base of people who grew up on the format – I can understand that a VHS tape does come loaded with memories of childhood for people of a certain age. Audio cassettes are where I find myself completely lost. Surely, even in the heyday, the pre-recorded cassette tape was never anything more than the unwanted compromise when the LP was too expensive or a doddery old relative bought the wrong thing as a Christmas gift? What is it about the cassette tape that now appeals, especially to people who actually intend to play the damn things? It can’t be the sound quality, the artwork or packaging, the convenience and ease of use. Is it simply a bloody-minded desire to be edgier and more esoteric than the vinyl collector?

I do, at least, see the appeal to the modern producer. Vinyl is expensive to press, CDs are just dull. I don’t know how much it costs to run off a batch of cassette tapes, but I’m guessing it isn’t that much and can be done in limited editions. So yes, the current appeal of the cassette for bands and labels is something that I do understand to a degree. But who are the people buying these, and why (other than artists giving them no other choice)? That, I struggle to understand.

Feel free to let us know if you are a cassette enthusiast – none of this is meant to be an insult or a dig at you. I’m genuinely fascinated to find out what the appeal is.

DAVID FLINT

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7 comments

  1. Sure they are an out dated format – BUT they were and are so easy to use – no computer trickery and fiddling about – just plug in and record- or copy whatever you want. They also could be pretty damn good sound quality – especially if you used the old Tascam or Fostex recorders – and even though I’ve got a more modern set up I prefer to do quick song demos still on my beat up Fostex x15….(whatever happened to all those other trendy formats like DAT/minidisc etc lol!) Oh and I have huge boxes of Johnny Thunders/Blasters/Cramps cassette bootlegs so I’ll not be getting rid of my cassette pets anytime soon!….(cassette recorders were perfect for bootleggers!). I do gotta wonder about the wisdom of morons who pay £30 for a reissue of a record they could still buy the original mint/new for a tenner then play them on worthless plastic record players that even binatone woulda turned their noses up at..! blame the dreaded hipsters and middle aged ex punky wavers trying to recapture their misspent youth myself ..lol!

    1. I suppose we are talking about slightly different things – I certainly have plenty of bootlegs and assorted home recordings. And yeah, DAT, minidisc and whatever else came and went quickly. I probably have a box load of stuff that could be a mini-museum of dead audio and video formats.

    2. The Reprobate is writing about pre-recorded tapes. Not home taping or bootlegs.

      I agree with David Flint, why would anyone fork out good money for a pre-recorded tape that guaranteed poorer sound reproduction than an abused LP?

      Er, well that would be me actually. I also fell into the world of ‘hifi’ cassette decks to go with the rest of my hifi separates. WTF was I thinking? I blame What HiFi? magazine and the drugs.

      Somewhere around 1985 I ditched the lot and carried on buying LPs until I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital age in the early 90s and bought my first CD (Dark Side of the Moon, thanks for asking).

      I suspect nowadays cassette tapes are bought by hipsters. Serves them, and their trendy beards, right.

      1. To be fair, I also had a fancy-pants tape deck on my stack of separates from Richer Sounds. It was the first thing to bite the dust (the amplifier is still going strong some three decade later). Despite all said above, I am in the market for a cheap-but-not-crappy tape deck, if only to salvage those bootlegs and tape-only rarities from the early 90s.

      2. How cheap is ‘cheap’? Richer Sounds have Teac AD850 at £300

  2. You can get a high end tape deck cheap. Beocord 5500 for about 50 to 120 quid. The one I have is from 1986, weighs 8Kg and has all the features except Dolby S, These are designed to be serviced, new belts are cheap if required. Just requires a 5 pin to RCA adaptor cable to work on non B and O amplifiers.

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