I still remember the first time I'd heard of an iPod. I thought, "Well, that's just dumb. It's an inferior way to listen to music. I'll just keep my huge binder of CDs and box of cassette tapes, thank you very much." The convenience of having hundreds of albums at your fingertips finally won me over, but it wasn't until the fourth-generation iPod Nano came out. Though I thank the technological geniuses every day for coming up with such a useful method of transporting music, I still revert to my old-school ways at home. I have an entire wall dedicated to vinyl records and a rotating storage shelf with hundreds of cassette tapes.
But why though?
You may be asking why right now. Why would I clutter up my house with such outdated music? Can you even get a cassette player anymore? The answer to the latter is yes. You can find them used at just about any thrift store and you can still buy good quality, new cassette players from some music stores.
It's all about nostalgia. Unlike vinyl records, cassette tapes absolutely do not sound better than digital. They sound tiny and have a low hiss in the background and will start to worble if you listen to the same tape over and over too many times.
It's purely for the joy of removing the cellophane protection, clicking open that case, and unfolding that cassette card filled with teeny-tiny lyrics and album art. I can still remember that fresh print smell.
As a kid, my only options for purchasing music were on vinyl or on cassette tape. Vinyl was more expensive, so my meager allowance was spent on cassettes. These were tiny little albums that could fit in your pocket. If you had a Walkman (another bit of obsolete tech that I love), cassette tapes were the only way you could bring your music with you. I carried many backpacks filled with more tapes than books around with me.
Cassette tapes are more rugged than vinyl records but are far from tough. The plastic casings crack easier than an iPhone screen and the tape is prone to get caught in the tape player, which could cause all kinds of issues, including the cassette being permanently stuck in your tape deck. Still, I carried them with me everywhere I went.
If you're young enough, you've probably heard of mixtapes (thank you Guardians of the Galaxy). If you're older, you may remember making or receiving your first mixtape.
The first mixtape I made was by recording my favorite songs from the radio. I made my own personal top 20 hits on a 90-minute blank tape.
The first mixtape I received was from my first crush. Have you ever received a mixtape, or even an Apple Music or Spotify playlist, from your crush? The songs spoke to me. These artists were like Cyrano de Bergerac for a boy that didn't have the nerve to say how he felt about me. Here's what makes a mixtape better than sharing a playlist: the person who made it had to hand write the song titles and artists or will have made their own artwork. It's personal. It's made with love. It's made just for you.
Album art is somewhat lost in the digital world. Album covers aren't any different. The imagery usually reflects the genre and portrays the theme of the album (usually). It's everything else. It's the back cover and the lyric insert or the collage poster. It's the label on the record or cassette. Those things mattered to us before music was so easily digestible digitally.
I'd buy a tape from my local record store, unwrap the cellophane protective cover, open the box, pull out the tape, and examine every inch of it. Some tapes were white or off-white. Exciting tapes came in colors. Later, tape cases became transparent so you could actually see how much music was on those tiny reels.
Pop the cassette into the tape deck and redirect my attention to the tiny album cover. If the tape didn't have anything special, it'd just be a simple "J card" with cover art, song titles, and some artist credit information. If it was a big release, you might find yourself unfolding two or three (or four) times. Double-sided even! I was always impressed with the artistic decisions made when determining how album art was going to be translated from a 12-inch record cover to a four-inch tape cover.
These days, I need reading glasses to see the intricate details of cassette tape artwork, but I still love it.
You're not going to hear me say that cassette tapes sound better than digital music (though you may hear me say that vinyl sounds better). I can certainly say cassettes aren't more convenient to carry around than digital. I may be able to fit 15 cassette tapes in their cases into my backpack (along with all my schoolbooks, P.E. uniform, and jacket). I can fit an infinite amount of music onto my iPhone. Not just downloadable music, but streamed music. It's like I'm living in a music store. No matter what genre I'm interested in this week, I can find music to satisfy. Digital tunes don't take up any space in your house, and if you only stream music, they don't even take up digital space. Digital music has freed us from the inconvenience of the physical medium. It is inarguably better in almost every way than the way I grew up discovering and listening to it.
That doesn't mean I won't go back to my collection of cassette tapes and pop a Bauhaus album into my tape deck.
I'm in a couple of local bands and every one of them has released or will release an album on cassette tape. Cassette tapes fit into that beautiful in-between for price and art. They're less expensive to make (and therefore sell) than vinyl and CDs, but still give us the ability to craft a fully realized piece of art, including the album cover, insert, and cassette label.
Cassette tapes are just more fun.
Are you a collector of obsolete technology or media? Would I find 8-tracks in your closet? Sound off in the comments.
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