Described by some as “Europe’s biggest tech show,” the Berlin Radio Show has long been famous for showcasing the next big thing in consumer electronics. In 1963, it was the compact audio cassette, introduced at the time by its creator, the late Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, who died in early March.
During Ottens’ lifetime, cassettes came to redefine listening habits, which until then had been limited to the much bulkier vinyl record. Car radios and the iconic Sony Walkman suddenly made individual listening experiences possible outside the home. The re-recordable nature of the format, meanwhile, has helped music fans collect and circulate their own mixtapes. At its peak in 1989, the cassette was moving 83 million units a year in the UK alone.
Although having been replaced in functionality first by the compact disc (CD) and then the digital file (MP3 and MP4), the audio cassette retains a special place in the history of audio technology, with mixtapes a precursor. playlists, and the Walkman, the precursor to the iPod.
And, while viewed as aesthetically and materially inferior to the vinyl record that came before it, the audio cassette is actually experiencing some kind of resurgence – partly for sentimental reasons, but also because, with the canceled concerts, it’s a smart way for small artists to monetize their work.
Amid a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the music industry, 2020 could rightly be called the year of the tape. According to figures from the UK phonographic industry, 155,542 cassettes were sold in the UK last year, the highest figure since 2003 and a 94.7% increase over 2019 sales. Apparently at the Improvised, global pop icons such as Lady Gaga, 1975 and Dua Lipa have started releasing their new releases on tape – and they are selling.
For those of us who are old enough to remember cassette tape as a common format for musical consumption, their resurgence is somewhat puzzling. After all, even in their prime, tapes still sucked a bit.
They lacked the aesthetic and romance of vinyl LP and its gatefold cover art. Subsequently, they lacked the usability, brilliance, and sonic fidelity of CD. And there isn’t a living music fan over 35 who doesn’t have a horror story to tell about a favorite album or mixtape chewed up by a malicious car stereo or portable boombox.
Ottens himself dismissed the “nonsense” of a cassette revival, telling Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad that “nothing can match the sound” of the CD, which he also played a key role in the development of. For Ottens, the ultimate goal of any music format was clarity and precision of sound, however, with a nod to nostalgic listeners, he also conceded: “I think people mostly hear what they want. hear.
To feel it
As a specialist in popular music and material culture, I can’t help but wonder if Ottens’ strict utilitarian perspective misses a deeper point about the tape and its recent resurgence as medium in popular culture.
After all, the cultural enjoyment of music extends far beyond narrow debates about sound quality. Our enjoyment of music, and the cultural rituals that surround it, is a complex and deeply social thing that engages more than our ears.
The continued rebirth of the record, for example, is sometimes explained as a return to the superior sound of vinyl. But it’s just as often seen as a cultural throwback to an iconic medium, steeped in musical history, that people can feel, manipulate, and experience together – unlike a digital file. Although less iconic, cassettes also represent cultural moments of great importance to music lovers.
In the mid-2010s, I investigated the first signs of this resurgence of cassettes in the indie and punk scenes of Glasgow as part of my PhD, chatting with musicians, labels and fans about the resurgence of cassettes. . In these conversations, the materiality of these objects – their physical and tangible presence – was often put forward as a motivating factor.
As one fan pointed out to me, “I just like having things. They’re all disappearing a bit now, but I just like having something. It’s my hobby, music is my hobby, and that’s how I spend my money. “
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There is also an economic component to the resurgence of cassettes. As debates rage on how music streaming services should reimburse artists, independent musicians have for some time turned to selling physical products and merchandise to generate income.
For indie and punk bands in Glasgow, as for independent artists today, cassettes were actually a cost-effective way to deliver a physical product, much cheaper than pressing a vinyl record and printing sleeves and packaging. As one label owner put it, “We tend to come out on tape because it’s cheap to make, it’s easy to collect, and that leaves the bands with money to get something.
While the practices of these small independent artists may seem quite remote from the recent adoption of cassettes by mainstream pop stars, each arguably has its roots in a desire for analog products that we can touch in an increasingly digital world. publicized via screens.
Many people have reported feelings of digital detachment and alienation during the pandemic. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that a longing for something we can actually feel, embellished with a nostalgic glow of a COVID-free past, could also explain the resurgence of the audio cassette, nearly 60 years since its inception. in Berlin.
This article by Iain Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Music Industries, Birmingham City University, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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Published March 27, 2021 – 09:30 UTC