As a child of the 1970s the humble cassette tape was a major part of my life. Blank tapes were inexpensive (at least, the ones I bought at KMart were), at a time when I could not afford to buy many LPs. Friends were prevailed upon to make copies of LPs that they, or their parents or older siblings owned and these, in the days before Spotify and internet piracy, formed the basis of my musical education, despite their relatively poor audio quality and tendency to destroy themselves by getting caught in the workings of the player.
I continued using cassette tapes for many years. When I was able to afford LPs, these were a precious, broadcast-quality technology; for day-to-day listening I made cassette copies. Cassette tapes were not a highly prized technology, just a more convenient version of the open-reel, quarter-inch tape technology that was still to be found in living rooms around the world. Ultimately, it was their portability that helped them last longer than otherwise they might have done.
When I travelled, my precious radio-cassette player and a swag of cassettes came along with me. My parents brought me a walkman-style portable cassette player in Hong Kong on their way back from an overseas holiday (the only one they ever took together) in 1984 and a new, more intimate experience of my music opened up for me. I was hooked on them, and while the Hong Kong no-name model didn’t last long, over the following few years I worked my way through a number of portable cassette players, including a couple of genuine Sony Walkmans.
Having built a collection of LPs during the 1980s, I arrived late to the new digital CD technology, purchasing my first CD player in 1989. Not long afterwards, on an overseas trip of my own, I purchased a Sony Discman to play my small collection of shiny discs, and gradually my reliance on cassette tapes began to wane. However there was still one function they fulfilled that CDs would not match until the era of CD burners that were still some way off in the early 2000s – the mix tape.
I amassed a collection of mix tapes, as did most people of my era. I made compilations of favourite artists for my own use, and, occasionally, curated selections of special music offered as a gift to special friends were a token of …. high esteeem, throughout the 1990s and even into the early 2000s.
Even in 2001, when I lived for a few months in South East Asia with direct access to the latest consumer products that would take months or years to arrive in remote Hobart, the best digital technology was the mini-disc player, which for an investment of some hundreds of dollars could record a couple of hours’ music on an expensive floppy disc medium that was not a million miles from the cassette tape. At this time, I purchased my last ever cassette ‘walkman’, a Panasonic model that boasted advanced technology that was clearly trying to keep pace with the new digital technologies. And even then, in cosmopolitan Singapore, finding tapes to play on it was a challenge, requiring a trip to the retro-fashion oriented Scott’s Plaza, where I purchased Cher’s Greatest Hits and a compilation by Bony M. Such a trend-setter!
Within months, the arrival of CD-R computer technology and the first iPod changed music forever. I could produce ‘mix-tapes’ on CD, download music from the internet, and store and play vast libraries on an MP3 player no bigger than a cigarette pack. Having carted stacks of cassettes and CDs around the globe for years, I took to these new digital technologies and my prized portable cassette player languished unloved and unused in a drawer for many years.
While I retained my collection of LPs and my high-end turntable, my box of cassette tapes languished unloved and gradually dwindled, replaced with CD versions and digital playlists that travelled with me whereever I went. I cleared out that drawer a few months ago; by this time there was an assortment of quaintly outdated mobile phones and other gadgets uselessly taking up space in there. I turned to another digital innovation – free online classified advertising courtesy of Gumtree – to see if there was any interest in these gadgets before I chucked them in the bin.
To my great surprise, my cassette player (still in perfect working order, having had very little use in fifteeen years), was snapped up by a young twenty-something chap. I asked him what on earth someone of his generation wanted with such an obsolete piece of tech, and he replied that he enjoyed sending mix tapes to his girlfriend, who lived in another state, and that she didn’t have anything to play them on.
Pressed further about why he didn’t just make a playlist on Spotify or some similar cloud-based service, he replied that the cassette offered a tangible object that both of them got pleasure from sharing; him from creatating, and she from receiveing and experiencing. I felt great happiness that my humble bit of obsolete junk was giving such romantic and tangible pleasure to a young couple who had so many intangible options available to them for sharing and expressing their love.
I was not altogether surprised, therefore, to discover that the very last factory producing cassette tapes in the USA is enjoying a resurgence in its business, for both recorded and blank cassettes. The following short film comes courtesy of Great Big Story.
What is your story with portable audio? Did you grow up using cassettes? What do you use today? Is there still room in your life for a mix-tape?