Next Big Retro Thing: The Cassette Revival

I’m not known for my trend-watching skills. I won’t be selling my consulting services to corporate America in order to peek into the mind of youth culture or what’s hot with generation Z. But occasionally my antennae are sensitive enough to pick up a low-level lame-geek trend.

Home Taping is Killing MusicIt occurred to me today that there has been a resurgent interest in mix tapes and cassettes recently. Not a big surge, just a slow simmer on the geekier side of the internets. Aj at Syndicate Product pointed me to this musing on compiling a mix tape from the UK Guardian. There’s also the recent book by Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mix Tape (which I haven’t yet read), and Thurston Moore’s book on cassette culture, Mix Tape. There’s thousands of cassette pictures at Flickr, and just do a quick blog search on “mix tape” and you turn up a heck of a lot.

Now this isn’t some big T Trend. No. This shit’s still l33t. How do I know? History, my friend… and navel gazing.

Think back about 15 years to 1992. That’s when Gen X was hitting its stride, and snotty college radio DJ boys like me were amassing large CD collections. We CD collectors thought we were ahead of the game (with a lot of free promos) while our friends and aquaintences were still rocking old tapes. And, then I noticed that CDs were really overtaking LPs in the “new” rack at the station–vinyl having been a radio station mainstay up to that time. I would go to the record store and CDs were taking over there, shoving the vinyl into smaller bins, which were becoming increasingly discounted.

Oh, and at the independent record store, the used LPs were getting cheaper, and cheaper. The dollar bins were exploding with great finds, as collectors and yuppie audiophiles dumped their record collections in order to “upgrade” to CD.

Man, I cleaned up. And most of my friends thought I was nuts to be blowing all this money on obsolete vinyl records. And I picked up great used turntables for five and ten bucks to hook up in my dorm room.

Then a funny thing happened. Grunge busted out, Nirvana broke into the mainstream, and in that great generational search for something “authentic” vinyl became cool again. Just two years later, all that great used vinyl wasn’t such a bargain anymore. A lot of independent labels never stopped releasing LPs, but then major label acts like Pearl Jam started releasing limited edition vinyl in order to court that indie cred.

Retro Record PlayerEven a decade later vinyl is still enjoying that resurgence, with used prices stabilized (but not quite bargain-basement, unless it’s a Billy Joel record), and electronics companies stumbling all over themselves to offer up retro-styled all-in-one stereos with built-in record players — even some that will record your vinyl to CD-R.

But the cassette is still the lowly underdog… or is it?

I think it’s time for a revival. First, the simple fact is cassette quality is not as bad as the consensus history would have it. With a decent cassette deck and a little bit of care (not to mention hooking it up to a decent amp and speakers), you can have yourself a damn high-quality listening experience.

Moreover, I see that the market for cassettes, cassette players and related stuffs has hit rock bottom.

Two years ago I went to the local public radio station’s annual record sale, Vintage Vinyl, and found the LP pickins to be damn slim. But the cassette inventory was out of sight, and cheaper than the LPs! I picked up some great 80s underground tunes for 50 cents a pop, most in playable or better shape — stuff the record geeks would have gotten into a hair-pulling fight over if it were on vinyl.

That discovery re-ignited my cassette listening. And then I started finding abandoned cases of new or slightly-used cassettes at record stores, full of great, obscure titles, again for just a fraction of the price of the same thing on vinyl.

For me the apex was reached this month, when I decided to bust out a closet full of cassettes and drag my cassette deck out to my main listening stereo. I realized I had tons of great music sitting unused in boxes that deserved to be heard. Going back to these cassettes was like the early days of Napster, when you could actually find good music and get it downloaded quickly, without a thousand teenie-boppers clogging your bandwidth searching for Britney Spears.

Digging out these great old tapes was also a genius money-saving move. My memory is so bad, that it’s like I just got a load of new music…. for free!

Then, on a lark, I decided to check out cassette decks on eBay. Holy shit! It’s a buyers market. Great quality decks from all the major brands are selling for $10, $15, maybe $25. These things cost hundreds new, and would have even been close to $100 used a couple of years ago. Only the highest-end Nakamichi decks are going for the big bucks (and still less than they did 5 years ago).

Just like vinyl in 1992, 2007 shows all the right signs for cassettes to be the next big retro thing. Today’s indie college kids who grew up with CDs, computers and file-traded MP3s throughout high school are searching for their “authentic” experience. They caught the tail end of mix CDs, but mostly only know iTunes playlists. They’ve heard about mix tapes, and maybe were subjected to cassettes by their parents, or used them as little kids. Cassettes will be their retro thing.

Then that will spark nostalgic cassette revival for us 30-somethings, who still have boxes of cassettes that we’ve either forgotten about, or neglected for lack of a good player.

And, yeah, just like vinyl, cassettes are much less convenient than an archive of MP3s playing on endless random for hours. But it’s the effort, time and consideration that a lot of us miss. Not to mention the analog sound… and noise.

So right now I’m sitting in my living room listening to some old cassettes, and I’m impressed about how good they sound. Sure, I can hear the hiss in between songs. But, you know, I can also hear the bad high-end distortion and sibilence in poorly encoded MP3s. I’ll take a little analog hiss over a crap-ass MP3 any day.

Maybe you’re feeling a little nostalgic twinge yourself. If so, my advice is: don’t wait around. If you need a cassette deck, get it now! Get down to the thrift store, pawn shop, garage sale or eBay now and pick up a deck before those young hipsters start driving up the prices.

When you hear that first bit of quiet, low-level hiss you’ll thank me.

[tags]cassette, retro, mix tape, analog[/tags]

6 Responses to Next Big Retro Thing: The Cassette Revival

  1. Bobbi July 24, 2008 at 11:16 am #

    Hi: I found a great Sony Walkman cassette player down at the thrift store for less than $2.00 and the sound from my cassettes is pretty spectacular. I have also bought a huge amount of cassettes (some of them still wrapped like Marvin Gaye: Live In Concert) from the same thrift store for a pittance. I even replace damage or missing pressure pads on some of them with the parts of other cassettes.

    Digitizing cassettes has not been that hard either and the sound, as you have said, on many of them can beat a poorly encoded MP3. People keep on saying, “Go to iTunes & simply download the music from there”, but I cannot find the many original artists doing the songs that I already have on tape. If I can encode the songs from a cassette to MP3s, why should I pay twice for music I already have?

    In conclusion, maybe you’re right & there will be a nostalgic resurgence of the cassette tape and people will stop ragging on this kind of music media. BTW, I have read that cassette tapes are still in use by the blind and those in Third World countries.

  2. saru July 15, 2009 at 1:26 pm #

    Doubtful – vinyl is visual and tangible, sounds great, and allows random access (i.e. pick up the needle) – cassettes are hissy, prone to damage, tedious and linear. I think it’s misguided to think that simply because they are “old” like records they will be as deeply loved. A generation raised on MP3 players with direct, random access to tracks will find a kindred spirit in vinyl. Time and again vinyl has resurged after a honeymoon with a new format, whereas cassettes will not enjoy a lasting comeback.

    I think the deal with cassettes is the same with hipsters – the 80s are cool right now. Vinyl, on the other hand, is timeless (a gold version was the format of choice for the NASA Voyager mission after all).

    I also began the process of digitizing my cassette collection, only to drop it due to the fact that the high level of hiss in cassette recordings makes MP3s of those recordings sound terrible. Some serious tweaking in SoundSoap is required after the fact, and hardly worth it except for the really rare stuff.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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