published: 31 /
With vinyl sales on the rise, Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' reflects on the possible impact of the first 'Cassette Store Day', which took place on September 7th this year
Twenty six of the UK's independent record shops celebrated the first 'Cassette Store Day' on September 7th, alongside stores in Europe and North America (see http://cassettestoreday.com/).
At the turn of the millennium, the Lucksmiths were able to use the humble cassette as a metaphor for hopeless nostalgia, singing “You're loyalties are divided between digital and vinyl/But I'm biding time for the cassette single revival/because when it happens, you've promised you'll return”. A witty way of saying, “it'll never happen”.
When he wrote that song, could Lucksmiths guitarist Marty Donald have known that a decade later there would be a concerted effort to launch such a revival? Cassette nostalgia has been in bloom for some time now – with iPhone cases made to look like cassettes, and Radio 4 documentaries looking back at the dead hobby of making compilation cassettes. But, aside from occasional collector's items, only the most determined underground labels have even considered releasing new music on cassettes.
Vinyl, of course, is the format for the romantics. And yet, for anyone who began listening to music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the chances are that it was cassette that you bought first. Although cassettes were easier to copy, they also encouraged a love of full length albums – where vinyl listeners merely needed to pick up the needle to skip to their favourite track, cassettes required complicated reverse-rewind manoeuvres. Normally, you just listened to the whole side.
Vinyl has proven rather easy to revive. Given its centrality to dance and hip-hop DJ culture, production never quite ceased. Cassettes may be even easier – they have a less central role in music performance, but the technology used to make and play them remains. Most people still have at least one cassette player at home. The point often missed in wistfully nostalgic looks back at the era of compilation cassettes is that it is still possible to make these tapes – the technology is old, but it still exists – people have just chosen not to.
You might be surprised to find that Sony still produces a limited amount of Cassette Walkmans, and still sells them in the US (though not the UK), while stereo systems still commonly come with a cassette deck, while the Philips flat single tape deck is still on sale. And yet, 'The Oxford English Dictionary' confirmed in 2011 that it would no longer be including the word 'cassette' in its concise version.
It is a common mistake to say that the CD killed off the cassette format. In fact, although sales of pre-recorded cassettes did indeed decline through the 1990s as CD became more affordable, it was still possible to buy most albums on cassette right until the end of that decade. The last new release album I bought on cassette was Bjork's 'Vespertine' in 2001.
In fact, it was MP3s that really killed the cassette. Until then, cassettes were the most convenient format for portable music listening. Portable CD players remained prone to skipping – only the most expensive Discmans worked on bumpy trains. Even when that bug was eventually fixed, the CD remained awkward to carry, and slightly too big for the average pocket. I was still using my cassette Walkman for portable music listening when I begun university in 2002.
This attempt at a cassette revival is a reminder at how cyclical music industry trends really are. The growing popularity of cassettes was as much of a challenge to industry bigwigs in 1980 as MP3s were in 2000. In 1986, Alan Sugar (now a TV personality, then a hugely successful technology entrepreneur) defended Amstrad's dual cassette deck in the High Court, setting a legal precedent that manufacturers were not responsible for what customers did with their products. Could MP3 technology really have evolved without this ruling?
The future Lord Sugar also helped set a broader cultural precedent as well. With tape-to-tape copying, consumers were confirmed as the owners of the music they had bought, free to use it as they wished. Compilation tapes made music a practical part of people's day-to-day lives (entertainment for long car journeys, soundtracks to parties and love-letters to potential partners), with the songs used in ways the original artists had never considered.
There was also another parallel to today's listening habits. Today, we choose between downloading albums or elaborately packaged records. The former is cheaper, and arguably more convenient; the latter more expensive but a signal of deeper commitment. In the cassette age, we faced a similar choice between the more expensive, but more permanent, CD version or the cheaper cassette.
For most of us, cassettes (then) and downloads (now) are for more experimental purchases. In the mid-1990s, labels often tempted us with bargain price cassette releases of brand new albums. I bought Ash's '1977' on that basis, priced at just £4.49 (compared to £12.99 for the CD version), and I wasn't alone – they secured a No.1 chart position, and much of that was down to the temptingly cheap cassette. These days, Emusic serves a similar function – albums at half price, encouraging listeners to experiment with music they probably wouldn't try otherwise.
When the Lucksmiths sang about the cassette single revival, they were acknowledging its inherent ridiculousness. The concept of 'Cassette Store Day' has been dismissed as "hipster bullshit" by a series of bloggers. While I think that over-eggs the level of abuse this harmless and well-meaning bit of fun deserves, clearly we do not need cassettes back in 2013.
However, what 'cassette store day' does do is remind us about a crucial part of the history of recorded music, a part that is overlooked and often forgotten (largely because, even at the time when they were the dominant music format, cassettes were generally dismissed as the child-size version of 'real' records). Re-introducing cassettes into the narrative of pop music history might help us to understand modern music consumer habits better – less a radical threat and more an inevitable development.