A golden age of cassette tapes?

A vintage Sony Walkman, with the instruction Auto Reverse below the tape window
Image: Sky Magazine/Rex Features

In Autoreverse, Florencia Cordeu takes us on a journey across Latin America through the memories and news her family sent to one another by cassette tapes. We take a look at this bit of technology, once the future, now having a nostalgic revival…

“Why would I want to walk about with music playing in my head?” –  This was the most common question put to the Sony team tasked with inventing what would become the Walkman.

When cassette tapes began their takeover from vinyl one of their biggest selling points was that they were compact, light and portable – but they needed a device that could play them on the go. Sony founders wanted to be able to listen to full-length operas on flights between Tokyo and America (the story goes) so the Walkman – a miniature stereo cassette player – was born.

Engineers were forbidden from adding a ‘recording’ function to the original Walkmans (Walkmen?). If it looked too futuristic, 70s technophobes might be hesitant to start using it in their everyday lives. But blank cassettes turned out to be key to their success.

When a favourite song came on the radio (bad luck for anyone who wanted to sing along!) there’d be total silence in the room as the track was recorded onto tape. No longer controlled by the whim of radio DJs, you could finally listen to your favourite songs whenever you wanted, without blowing all your money in record stores.

Blank tapes also gave music fans the chance become the DJ and make a mix from the comfort of your bedroom. Even those of us who missed the best years of the mixtape know what a good present it makes, especially if cash is short. Pop culture references are everwhere , so it’s hardly surprising that there’s an enduring romance to the idea of giving someone a mixtape. Friends characters were making each other tapes well into 2001, when cassettes accounted for only 4% of music sales.

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Gif description: Chandler hands Monica a mixtape. ‘Here honey, I got you a heartfelt gift that changing technology has basically already made obsolete’

Beyond music – as Florencia and her family discovered – you could also use cassette tapes for conversations. Recorded and sent through the post, this idea won’t be such a stretch of the imagination for anyone who uses voice notes on Whatsapp. Like Whatsapp, conversations on tape are personal, intimate and most of all, private. “Phone calls were expensive… Of course, there were letters as well but there is nothing like hearing a voice,” says Florencia. Having those tapes helps her to see the world the way her family did in 1977, when they were uprooted from their home.

But 40 years later, why are cassette tapes coming back into fashion? UK cassette sales grew by 94% in first half of 2019, and the Record Labels Association predicted music fans would buy 100,000 tapes in 2019.

The privacy of what’s on a tape might give us a clue. So long to the shame of sharing next year’s Spotify Unwrapped, with your Frozen 2 soundtrack obsession laid bare for everyone to see. Instead, plug in a tape and let everyone assume you’re listening to an undiscovered hipster band, and not Kirsten Bell. Again.

Plus, in an age of digital mainstream, analogue is cool again. For listeners of the avant garde, the sonic quality of tape is a selling point. There’s a lot that experimental and electronic music makers can do with a spool of tape that you just can’t recreate on a laptop. And Cassette Store Day – an annual event since 2013 – has proved increasingly popular in bringing all those cool people together in the reel world (sorry not sorry).

japanese tape spools
Image: Mao Yamamoto, endgadget.com

Image description: Three Japanese men, wearing white shirts, ties and jeans, stand in a line, holding two reels of tape in the air. The tape travels from one reel to the other through their ears. It does not look comfortable.

But it’s not just specialist music or a desire for nostalgia that’s putting cassette tapes back in business. The top 5 selling cassette albums for the first half of 2019 mirrored most other formats, with Billie Eilish, Madonna and Lewis Capaldi all featuring.

As millennials revived the vinyl, so too shall Gen Z embrace their dads’ old tape collections. It’s a long way from what those Sony execs must have envisioned when they put on their headphones on the plane and started listening to the first cassette of Madame Butterfly. The “golden age” of cassette tapes might be over, the scope of how they’ve changed the language of music and communication is only just becoming clear.

Find out more about Autoreverse here.

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