Last Saturday was International Cassette Store Day. I know this not because I happened to speak to someone who was excited about Cassette Store Day, nor because I participated in Cassette Store Day, nor because I intentionally run a dragnet across the depths of reddit looking for things that I might find to be entirely irrelevant (I’d probably discover something far more interesting and possibly more disturbing if I went that route). Though I hold a large, warm place in my heart for dead and dying mediums — I’m writing for a newspaper, for god’s sake — even I can’t bring myself to embrace the cassette tape so readily.
I know that Saturday was International Cassette Store Day because of my addiction to petty, useless online news. And in the lead up to Cassette Store Day, news outlets from across the web began to put together articles all centered on the return of the compact cassette. Topped with predictable question titles like “Can cassette tapes be cool again?” or “Why would anyone buy a cassette tape?” These articles appear to delve into a strange alternate reality where, to quote Mark Coleman’s piece on CNN.com, “there’s a sizable, and growing, subset of consumers who lust for musical objects that they can hold in their hands (and their hearts), as well as their ears,” and this subset decided that the cassette tape — with its poor sound quality, variance in playback speed and all of the other frustrations that come with it — was the best bang for their nostalgic buck.
I understand the appeal of such articles. It’s nice to drum up a story taking a quick trip down memory lane. It’s fascinating to explore the music medium of an era and how it defined their pop culture. The mix tape as a symbol of budding ’80s love is pretty adorable, and there’s no harm in a little reminiscing. However, the time of the cassette tape is past, and I think we’d all be better off if we just let that old medium rot in its shallow, unmarked grave.
Let us assume for a moment that all of these articles are on to something. Rumors of the cassette tape’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The growing throngs of vinyl collectors around the country are going to eagerly drop their search for a mint release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” and will instead shift their focus to getting their hands on the cassette version of “Tunnel of Love.” All will hail the cassette, and the local hipster population will take to strutting up and down the street with old walkmans they stole from their parents’ garages. For anyone who harbors a deep love of music, there are few things that could be worse than this.
What must be kept in mind when the cassette tape is discussed is that, while vinyl records have always held a special place in the hearts of millions, no one ever really fell in love with the cassette tape. Vinyl records came with beautiful album art and boasted sound quality that still makes modern audiophiles swoon. Cassette tapes came in flimsy plastic packaging and flattened out the nuances of the music. Different cassette players would play at different speeds. Some would eat your tapes. But cassettes stuck around, not because they were well liked, but because they were cheap, accessible and egalitarian. It’s no easy task to press your own vinyl, but compiling a mix tape was an innovative process of sharing music that rewrote the rules and put power in the hands of the consumer in an entirely new way.
In the classic music-geek flick “High Fidelity,” John Cusack, who lives in the year 2000, discusses the art of making a mix tape at length. But he owns a record store and it’s made apparent that the true magic of music can be found on vinyl. The only tapes in sight are the ones he plans to turn into mix tapes and a homemade recording by a punk duo. It’s a great way to highlight the role of the cassette tape in music. It’s a cheap and easy way to share music with others, if you can stand the loss of sound quality — the little sentiment that cassettes had came only from the act of sharing music with others.
In the modern era, however, we can already do that, so let’s avoid adopting a bad medium for nostalgia’s sake.
Let the cassette tape die.