In Defense of the Cassette (or, Why This Trendy Trend Makes Rational Sense)

Throughout my lifetime, I’ve seen the rise and fall of several types of music media. I was born into a CD-less world: compact discs didn’t hit the streets until 1982 (a factoid I learned from Jian’s memoir). My earliest exposure to music came in the form of vinyl records, eight tracks and cassette tapes all of which I listened to on my parents’ Quadrophonic Stereo System. I remember playing with the toggle for hours, shooting music from one corner of the room to another. I’m sure it drove my parents nuts but they never complained.

I remember when my parents bought their first CD Player. It was a pretty big deal. We were each allowed to buy one compact disc to play on that inaugural digital evening. I got Aerosmith Pump. My dad got Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, my mom got Carol King’s Tapestry and my sister got Mariah Carey’s first album. We went home and loaded up the carousel. Only one spot in the cartridge was empty.

My personal switch from cassette tapes to CDs was a slow one. I didn’t get my own CD player until two years after I purchased Aerosmith Pump. Plus, cassettes were being sold for super cheap! I benefitted directly from the switch to digital, as used music stores were overwhelmed by cassette collections literally being dumped on their doorsteps. I got Aerosmith’s entire catalogue on cassette, for instance, for just twenty bucks. I soon realized that the older material in Aerosmith’s catalogue is far superior to Pump and all that would eventually come after. I still listen to Get Your Wings monthly (on vinyl now, though).

I eventually switched to CDs of course. In fact, approximately half of my paycheques from my part time job at the butcher shop were spent at A & B Sound. I kept them all and have since organized them autobiographically (a la High Fidelity) in a giant CD Book). It’s a nice conversation piece, but I never listen to CDs anymore. Instead, I straddle that entire era, only listening to Records and Mp3s… and more recently, cassette tapes again: I’ll get there soon.

************I’m forgetting the middle step between CD and MP3, namely Mini Discs, which are a perfect representation of Sony’s horrible proprietary business model. I still have one, but good God, what a waste of money that was!**************

It has often been said that we will remember the first CD, Record or cassette we bought, but it is unlikely that future generations will remember their first download. It’s true, for me at least. I have no idea which album was illegally given to me by a stranger over Napster. I’m willing to bet it was a pre released copy of OK Computer, but I’m far from positive.

Part of the reason I can’t remember surely has to do with the sheer volume of albums I started downloading in the late nineties. Some of those downloads are still imbedded on the hard drive of my (ok) computer to this day in a tiny file size universally adopted in that dross era of small hard drives: these too, are now relics.

The Information Age is a double edged sword. We who have access to the Internet can easily download entire albums in mere minutes. It’s awesome as a lot of what I download are musical rarities. I owe my Dock Boggs obsession to Isohunt.

But, recently I’ve become overwhelmed by the mass of my digital music library. I have a lot of music on iTunes, but I only have the time to listen to a small percentage of my tunes. The play count display on iTunes vividly depicts my listening habits: Blackout Beach’s Fuck Death is nearing five hundred plays, Slam Dunk’s new album Welcome to Miami is already at 203 complete listens… But other bands whose albums I’ve procured via publicist, even some of the albums I’ve reviewed and genuinely liked have gone ignored in comparison to my favourites. I wonder how/if my listening patterns would differ if I only had these albums on vinyl.

Recently, my patterns have been changed yet again. The reason? I bought a Walkman at Value Village. It only cost me five dollars (compare that to the $200 I spent on the mini disc player fourteen years ago). I did not buy the thing so that I could be hip; I bought it so that I could listen to Nasstassia Yard’s beautiful first album, which is only available on cassette.

That album holds a special place in my heart for many reasons including format. Whenever my iPhone died, I would plug my headphones into my newly acquired Walkman: I ended up listening to that album so much that I wore it out.

Nasstassia, and everyone else who chooses the cassette tape format over CD and especially digital formats have stumbled onto something. They have made listening to music an event, much like listening to records is an event (one we partake of more consciously than when we just through our iPod on shuffle.

I still prefer records to tapes of course. I, no sentimental extremist who will “only listen to analogue”. But I’m really glad I bought that old Sony Walkman (it even has mega base) for five bucks. It’s responsible for getting me into more ambient sounds via Eclipser (who’s record is only available on cassette… and MP3 of course).

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