Friday, September 13, 2013

Anniversary of Cassettes

My local news channel featured an announcement just now, that cassette tapes were introduced by Philips on this day in 1963. I wrote this piece about cassettes last fall.... It's funny how one’s mind wanders and makes connections. I was reading a “Gramophone” magazine review of a Martha Argerich CD, and the subject of cassette tapes came to mind, because I once owned a two-cassette box of Chopin music that Argerich had recorded. I hadn't known that the famous "funeral march," sometimes featured in my childhood's cartoons, was actually Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2. As the tape played along in the car, clicking a little in the player, it came to that movement, and I thought, "Oh!  That's where that comes from!" Of course, Argerich's version is compelling.

I wondered: Whatever happened to cassettes? I know I’ve not seen them in stores for many years, although they once covered several shelves in places like Sam Goody and Tower Records.

I checked Wikipedia, which had a footnoted article that indicates they are actually still being sold, but in very few numbers. The author writes: “Cassettes outsold vinyl and compact disc, respectively, from the early 80s until the early 90s.” Even in 2004, 8.6 million cassettes were sold. But by 2009, sales had plummeted to 34,000. “Of the 2,000 tapes sold year-to-date, most have been albums at least 36 months old, bought at indie retailers in the south Atlantic region, in the suburbs, according to SoundScan.”

So there’s my answer! The author notes that cassettes’ niche is specific: “Not only were tapes the way many young people first owned music in the Reagan era; from post-punk to C86 to riot grrrl to industrial and noise, cassettes also embodied the 80s underground's do-it-yourself ethic. So much so, in fact, that many indie labels never stopped creating them....Last August, Rhizome writer Ceci Moss identified 101 cassette labels.” (

That made me think of other formats. During the college years of 1976-1979, I had an eight-track player in my car, and I still enjoyed those tapes as late as 1979, a summer I had a job that involved a lot of car travel. But I doubt I purchased any thereafter. According to a Wikipedia article, eight-tracks were no longer sold in retail stores by 1982, though record clubs still sold them until 1988. The last commercial eight-track release seems to be Fleetwood Mac’s 1988 “Greatest Hits.”

Good riddance! Those tapes were terrible things: their clunkiness, and the way you had to put up with repeated songs. I see them sometimes in antique stores and groan. 

My parents wonderfully purchased me a reel-to-reel recorder and player when I was in high school, around 1972. I used it to record music off the radio, especially KSHE-FM in St. Louis, and later Met Opera Saturday matinees. But I don’t think I ever purchased a pre-recorded tape. No wonder: when I looked up that format on Wikipedia, I discovered that pre-recorded reels were largely gone from stores by 1973, and a few were offered by record stores until the late 1970s.

I don’t miss cassettes much. Of course, you had to rewind or fast-forward to your favorite song, and you hoped you wouldn’t go too far or too short. But I was used to them. I don’t remember the first cassette I purchased, but I remember the first one I played: David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World” LP, which I taped at home by putting the small player/recorder next to the turntable speakers, and then I carried that same player with me in my old car, a seen-better-days 1963 Chevy. The car wasn’t worth getting a player installed (and my subsequent Dodge Dart had the 8-track player). So it was a homemade way to have favorite music in the case as I, a teenager in a small town, enjoyed my new driver’s license and freedom. 

My 1979 Pontiac station wagon had a cassette player built in, so I had a lot of popular tapes. After I was married in the 80s, Beth and I like to purchase cassettes for our cars, especially for cross-country trips to visit the parental-units on holidays. We had a tape of Rossini overtures, baroque “greatest hits,” and Garrison Keillor radio shows. To this day, “William Tell Overture” reminds me of a tedious interstate rather than the Lone Ranger. We had a favorite tape that included two Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending” and “Tallis Fantasia” along with Elgar’s “Serenade in E Minor for String Orchestra” and Tippett’s “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli,” and also a cassette with Haydn’s trumpet, harp and organ concertos. All these pieces still bring to mind road trips. 

Of course, the tapes were handy for compiling your own favorite songs. A good friend made me a mixtape of her favorite 70s songs, which I played a lot in my car for a long time. I had some Christian pop songs compiled on a tape, as a way to put myself in a peaceful mood when, for instance, driving to the hospital to call upon folks. 

We had a little carrying case in which to store the tapes, but often they ended up being tossed into a small cardboard box. I’d dump them out onto the car seat, and they made that plastic clatter as they fell onto the seat and I sorted through them to locate good music for whatever the day’s trip was.

The last cassette I purchased was either Talking Head’s “Sand in the Vaseline,” or a Christian singer (whose name I can't remember) singing a beautiful version of Psalm 121. This was back in the mid 1990s. By then I was purchasing CDs for home listening.  But why did I wait to begin purchasing CDs until around 1989 (seven years after their introduction) and only then when my favorite record store stopped carrying LPs? I liked LPs (still do) and my car only had a cassette player. Used to this audio technology, I was devoted to it for a long time. My 2004 Nissan Sentra had players for both cassettes and CDs, but not my 2010 Toyota Matrix.

Will I someday write a nostalgic piece about CDs? Will it (like this essay) unintentionally turn out to be a reminiscence about cars? The time is coming and is here; in my Matrix, I listen to my iPod full of downloads more often than CDs. 

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