The humble cassette pet: An ode to home taping
It’s time to dig out the C90s and celebrate that most flawed yet charming of musical formats for today is Cassette Store Day!
During the 1980s, record companies (who, thanks to the launch of the CD, were hardly short of cash at the time) ran an aggressive anti piracy campaign featuring a cassette skull and crossbones logo which claimed, in big, stern letters that Home Taping Is Killing Music.
If the intention was to scare people into not doing it, it didn’t work.
Years before downloading and torrenting, taping off the radio was both illegal and normal: You never heard of anyone being prosecuted for it and the idea of the police descending on eight year old bootleggers seemed, not only unthinkable, but also ridiculous.
At a time when music culture was resolutely analogue, the practice of taping songs off the radio onto cassette tapes was akin to loving ritual. My sister and I would take it in turns on alternate Sunday afternoons to sit in the big armchair in the living room listening to the UK Top 40 on Radio One, which was broadcast from 4pm to 7pm.
The rundown started at number 40 and the number one record would be played at, roughly, five minutes to 7pm. If you had enough knowledge of what was in the charts and what was being released that week, you’d have a pretty good idea of which songs were going to be played.
Mum and dad would ply us with drinks and sandwiches as we sat vigil, the enormous padded headphones sliding down past our ears, finger hovering over the pause button.
It didn’t always work: Sometimes, if the song had a long instrumental intro you might fail to recognise it until it was too late to tape it. If that was the case, you’d then be confined to a sort of two week purgatory, waiting for another shot at it.
I had dozens of tapes full of songs that I’d taped off the radio. The earliest ones were compiled from the Top 40 on Radio One whereas later tapes were made up of bits of the John Peel show, Mark Radcliffe and Mark ‘Boy Lard’ Riley on the late night shift on Radio One, and the indie show on my local radio station, Signal Cheshire.
Home taping didn’t kill music: Far from it. It enabled the young and the skint to try songs out before deciding to buy the artist’s single or album. My mixtapes allowed me to create a sonic archive, a sort of aural notepad that I could return to again and again. They acted as an aide memoire, a signpost to particular songs and particular bands, who I would return to later when I had the funds to purchase material.
The record labels may have lost out on sales at the time, but they got those sales later on, possibly at a time when the industry was in recession and they needed the sales more than they did in the 1980s.
Unlike with downloads or streaming, the quality of bootlegged material would deteriorate over time and with use, meaning that the quality would eventually become so awful as to be unlistenable. I had tapes this happened to, just as I had tapes that got so snarled and chewed by various cassette players as to be unplayable, or that snapped altogether and had to be very carefully spliced back together again with clinical precision and sellotape.
Tapes, in short, were a far from perfect format. But that is perhaps part of the romance of them.
In 2018, when the pace of life has accelerated beyond all recognition, the sheer time and labour involved in creating a mixtape for a friend feels like a curiously old fashioned but charming labour of love. Making a mixtape would take at least a day, especially if you were taping from tape to tape instead of from vinyl to tape.
You needed to really want to make one, but you could also afford to take your time just as you could afford to write long letters to accompany the tapes, or talk to someone for hours on the phone: The time was there to take. Life moved at a much slower pace then. Maddeningly slow at times.
It still takes time to make a playlist in iTunes or on Spotify, but the overall process is much quicker and much cleaner. The real time is taken up by the listening, re-listening, and re-ordering of tracks. If you need to re-order a tracklist online, it takes seconds.
By contrast, if you were halfway through making a tape for someone and realised that the running order didn’t work, or that you’d missed a song out, there was nothing for it but to either go back to the beginning and start all over again, or rewind the tape to the point in the tracklist where it all started to go off-piste, and re-tape the remaining tracks again.
It could add on hours of work.
My mixtapes have largely been eaten by various cassette machines or have been binned as I have moved on to downloading and streaming. I have kept some of them, particularly some very good and/or highly decorative compilations that were made for me by other people, that I still enjoy listening to and can’t bear to part with.
But the tapes I made from 1986 through to 2009 have served their purpose: During that period I tracked down and bought up on vinyl or CD a surprisingly large number of songs that I’d previously had on tape.
Post 2009 I started to download tracks (legally, funnily enough…) and, again, purchased many of the tracks I had once had on mixtapes in the eighties and nineties.
The revival in cassette culture, as represented in part by Cassette Store Day (CSD), has come as a surprise to me. As with certain contemporary aspects of print fanzine culture in the UK, I do worry that the format has become fetishised and is being celebrated in a way that feels alien and strange to me.
The obvious riposte to this feeling would be that the cassette revival is not for me, it’s for millennials and hipsters who, having been brought up on downloads and streaming, have a yearning for something more solid and tangible. I can understand that.
There’s even CSD apps in development which will allow you to enjoy the unique cassette experience on your phone. But presumably not the bit where the tape gets chewed up and you have to untangle it from the machine and re-spool it with a pencil. That would be weird.
I’m certainly not against a cassette revival. Believe me, the opportunity to buy a new walkman on which to listen to my audiobooks (not the band, the thing…) in bed is most welcomed. After Sony discontinued the cassette walkman back in 2010, I’d become resigned to having to re-buy various cassette audiobooks on CD, but no more!
So, raise a glass won’t you to the humble C90, to the cassette, friend of the young and the poverty stricken, that pocket sized flexible friend and friendship instigator that refuses to die.