Unravelling the cassette

5 March 2008 at 10:18 am 6 comments

Stacey Yates writes:
The audio cassette is 45 years old this year, and is reaching the end of its life, at least in Europe and the US. It peaked in the 1980s, but started to decline after the CD was rolled out in 1993. As our music consumption becomes increasingly intangible, people are pointing to some of the pleasures of more tangible forms – as a amusing post at the design blog Core 77 recently reminded me: the cassette as a design convention.

In contrast to the age of digital, the cassette was a lo-fi, low tech object and it was the first hard format to emerge in response to a more mobile society – the age of the Walkman preceded the iPod generation by 25 years. It could get stuck down the back of your sofa or crammed into your banger’s glove compartment for months, and you knew you could still rely on it to work when you found it again. Unlike the CD, it was near unbreakable and was always ready to play just where you left off. If it did get a bit chewed up, all you needed was a pencil or a biro to sort it.

The one time you might have been precious about a cassette was when you made a mix tape. In the 1980s creating a mix tape for someone was an act of dedication. Sitting through selected tapes with your finger hovering above the pause button took time and choosing the right mix of songs took creativity. The mix tape could also be a personal selection, creating a whole new way to mix and match music that has been reinforced by the rise of the celebrity DJ and by digital music. But let’s face it, there’s no romance in a USB stick. So perhaps it’s not surprising to find a site which, perhaps cunningly, is selling the ease of the digital ‘mix-stick’ – but in a package which offers all the personalisation that you used to get from the cassette.

Image © Stacey Yates

[Correction: A typo above has the CD launched, incorrectly, in 1993. In fact, it was launched commercially in Europe and the USA in 1983 (late 1982 in Japan). Thanks to Harry, in Comments, below, for pointing this out.]

Entry filed under: culture, design, digital, media.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Harry  |  7 March 2008 at 11:26 am

    “the CD was rolled out in 1993”?
    As far as i remeber, the first music CD to be commercially released was something by Abba. In 1981!

  • 2. larel  |  7 March 2008 at 11:49 am

    The fascination of retro technology seems to be a peculiar western phenomenon which has no parallel in Asia.

    Does anyone have a hypothesis about why this is so?

  • 3. Suvid Bajaj  |  13 March 2008 at 2:37 am

    Retro Technoloy seems to be a western phenomenon since the West has spent a considerable period without them. So a significant proportion of people there do not know about them. Hence if brought back they are novel and different. Therefore the fascination.

    The Asian markets are just coming out from a period of daily interaction with these technologies. People can still remember their own use of such stuff not so long ago. Further, given large populations in Asia, diffusion of new technology is uneven so these retro technologies are still part of some people’s daily life especially in the lower socio ecnomic strata. So they represent all that is old and dusty – not novel and different.

  • 4. Suzie Comer  |  17 March 2008 at 1:15 pm

    My first thoughts are that Asia is all about progress… the past, particularly in somewhere like China, just represent being backwards and often hard times. There is little nostalgia for the recent past and all they are looking to is the future. Why would people be interested in something from the past when the future is SO exciting?

  • 5. Jake Goretzki  |  17 March 2008 at 2:04 pm

    I don’t know much about the Asian situation, but I do think that format nostalgia is post-rationalised baloney.

    It infuriates me when people ascribe mystical qualities to vinyl for instance – that it somehow sounds ‘warmer’ (as if you can’t get ‘warmer’ out of an mp3 by quickly jigging the graphic equaliser). Vinyl warped and scratched. Tapes got chewed up. Seaside holidays in England in the sixties and seventies meant greasy food, tar on your towels and suspicious foam in the rock pools. Local shops meant an hour plodding between grocer and baker and butcher – not a quick whistle through 10-iterms-or-less.

  • 6. Josh Hunt  |  17 March 2008 at 2:06 pm

    I’d have thought this is about the pace of technological change. In more developed / western contexts, the pace of change has been relatively slow, allowing people to develop greater emotional attachment with developments (like said cassette). And I think we are a bit more cynical about the idea that newer must equate to better.
    In most Asian countries (I’m not sure whether you could generalise quite as much as the poster – don’t the Japanese like retro technology – I’ve no idea) the pace has been much quicker, and is seen as a sign of progress. As the latest technology has become increasingly affordable, people are moving onto the next thing without building up the same attachment. Thus the cassette might have been seen as a (more brief) stepping stone to bigger and better things. To place greater value on old technology would seem like a backwards step with no related (emotional) benefit. And there is much more of a simple link that newer = better.

    I’m not sure whether this is limited to technology. In lots of places, less value is placed on old stuff / heritage etc – particularly, I think, in less developed countries. It’s like in Portugal, new houses are much more desirable and therefore expensive than ‘second-hand’ houses. Here it tends to be the other way around.


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