“A dying format? I’m not sure there’s any such thing,” says Richard Goldsmith from upscale hi-fi geeksters’ paradise Audio Gold. Cast your eye around his North London shop, and you can see why he might say such a thing. Walking past turntables and transistors that look like exhibits from a design museum, he shows me a cassette player priced at a bracing £450. It’s made – as, apparently, many of the best cassette players were – by a Japanese company Nakamichi, who prided themselves on divining hitherto unimagined clarity from the humble C90. The best thing about it, though, is the way it changes tape sides. Through the Perspex window, you can see a mechanism – tantamount to a small robot hand – physically turn the tape around to start playing it. “I’d be surprised if it’s still here by the end of the week.”
If only for dramatic effect, it’s tempting at this point to trumpet the return of tapes. Certainly, the ink is barely dry on data that suggests as much. This week Island Records announced that their speculative decision to press up 4000 cassettes of Words For You had exceeded all expectations. HMV and the leading supermarkets may have long since stopped selling tapes, but the album – which involves celebrities like Joanna Lumley and James Corden reading poetry whilst classical music trills prettily along in the backgrpound – still managed to sell out on Amazon. By contrast, only 746 of the 200,000 copies of Words For You sold have been downloads. With thousands more cassettes being manufactured in time for Christmas, Island spokeman Ian Brown said, “What’s exciting is that we don’t know how big the market is because no-one realised there was a demand.”
Whichever way you look at it, you can’t help feeling that a howling great oversight has been allowed to happen. Having worked out that old people are one of the few demographs that will pay for music, Universal threw its weight behind a high-profile Vera Lynn album and saw their efforts repaid with a number one album. How many more might they have sold if they had also put it out on tape? It’s tempting to smile indulgently at your silver-haired elders as they persist with their old Val Doonican cassettes. It might just be, however, that older people are privy to specialized knowledge that only comes with the passing of time. It’s taken them a lifetime to work out that – as long as the motorway fast lane is full of people trying to reach their destination quickly – the relatively empty slow lane sometimes gets you there faster. Similarly, there are some environments in which the tape wins out over all other formats.
As the iconically hip, free-jazz loving, uber-indie guitarist of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore may be an unlikely bedfellow for the sort of well-upholstered septuagenarian music fans who think an MPEG what you hang your MCOAT on. But even during the CD’s early 1990s supremacy, Moore’s devotion to the cassette never wavered. Four years ago, he published Stop. Fast-forward. Pause. Rewind. – a history-cum-love letter to what he calls “the most personal of all formats.” Occasionally, he produces limited-edition cassette runs of releases on his Ecstatic Peace label. “The cassette offers one of the great listening experiences,” he says, “That friction of the tape against the head is unbeatable. Then you’ve got the aesthetic difference. You find a mixtape that someone has made for you, and there is no mistaking the amount of care and affection that has gone into it.”
By any criteria, Moore’s obsession is pretty far gone. He has thousands of meticulously filed CDs released on underground labels with names like Chocolate Monk and Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers – labels that equate the cassettes’ affordability and apparent obsolescence as ratification of the their underground credentials. He is far from alone. In Camden Market, 2009’s must-have accessory was the bag designed to look like a cassette. It’s all very well, but this sort of devotion to a format developed by Philips in 1963 primarily as a dictation aid – does it have its basis in anything other than nostalgia?
Not if a furious essay which appeared two weeks ago on US music site Popmatters is anything to go by. Acclaimed left-field releases by the likes of Dirty Projectors and Crystal Castles may have sold out their cassette runs – but Calum Marsh – author of Reconsidering The Revival of Cassette Tape Culture – insists that “at best, the cassette revival is merely a vacuous fad of no genuine value… [and] at worst, a confused, cultural misstep more dangerous than most would care to admit.”
Might it not be that tapes offer something that subsequent technologies have failed to provide? Moore says it isn’t unduly paranoid to suppose that the intrinsically vulnerable CD is a format designed to be re-bought. Anyone who has ever tried to keep CDs in a car – an act akin to attacking them with a cheese knife – must surely concur. On CDs, the information is exposed. On cassettes, it is protected by a plastic shell. The price of cassettes at my local Oxfam – a can’t-give-them-away 20p a throw – suggests that amid the ever-intensifying neophilia of the 21st century, these are considerations we may have completely forgotten about. Since I started relieving them of their surplus, I have filled my car up with albums by The Supremes, Van Morrison, James Brown and Talk Talk. Surprisingly, the cassette era even extends to relatively recent gems like Radiohead’s Kid A. Better still, the foetal bass and padded cell production of that album’s highlights – Everything In Its Right Place, Morning Bell – is perfectly suited to the warm, cocooned ambience of magnetic tape.
Of course, central to the lingering affection that people have for tapes is the fact that you could compile them yourself. “Home taping is killing music,” warned the skull and crossbones on the back of several major label releases in the early ’80s. I still have the first cassette of songs I ever recorded from the radio. Thirty years after I first removed it from its box, my red ferric BASF C90 features excerpts from Sunday night staple Star Choice, in which a celebrity of the day got to DJ for a couple of hours. Separated only by period inter-song banter from Birmingham City star striker Trevor Francis are the likes of Chicago’s If You Leave Me and E.L.O’s Living Thing.
Little Boots’ Victoria Hesketh is 16 years younger than me, but even she remembers sourcing her music via similar means. “Oh, absolutely. You would sit by the tape recorder with your finger poised on the pause button, because you’d want to catch it before the DJ started talking.” Take away the technologies of the era and such behaviour was no different to that of a 10 year-old illegally downloading the latest N-Dubz and Chipmunk hits onto their computer. So why does it somehow not feel as wrong? Thurston Moore feels that the moral differential lies in the aesthetic merits of the two formats: “File sharing is utterly unsexy. It takes no time at all to knock up a playlist from your iTunes folder and give it to someone.”
He surely has a point, doesn’t he? And it’s a point reflected in the monetary decline in the value of music. Everything to do with consuming music has become easier. When you compiled a tape for someone, the time spent making it was central to its perceived value. You would also have a fairly good idea that each track followed on smoothly from the last one because the compilation would have been made in real time. “We’re getting close to the central issue now,” echoes Moore. “Sometimes I go to yard sales in order to buy cassettes compiled by people who are complete strangers to me. You see something that has ‘Marty’s Mix’ scrawled on it in ballpoint pen; you take it home and you don’t know if it’s going to be US post-punk hardcore or Kenny Rogers. Whatever it is though, I know I’m getting a slice of someone’s life. Cassette is the only format that gives you that.”