Blanks for the Memories

July 15th, 2009 | Category: Essays

“The tape cassette is a liberating force…” proclaimed Malcolm McLaren thirty years ago. “Taping has produced a new lifestyle.” Cassettes made recording and customization possible. Cassette players made listening on the go possible.

Tom Waits by iri5

More than any other subset of culture, youth culture was created — and is enabled — by technology. The telephone supposedly created the Teenager, and even if it didn’t, those formative years of the socialization process wouldn’t be the same without the dialtone (even metaphorically), and for my generation, the same could be said for the cassette tape.

“Home taping is killing music.” It sounds funny now, but the British Phonographic Industry — sister of the RIAA — was incensed. Their attitude was that every blank tape sold was a record stolen. “BPI  says that home taping costs the industry £228 billion a year in lost revenue,” McLaren said in 1979, “so they’re not happy that Bow Wow Wow have already reached No. 25 on the singles chart… ” The home-taping controversy was handcrafted for McLaren. He was managing Bow Wow Wow who had a hit with a song celebrating home-taping called “C-30! C-60! C-90! Go!”  “In fact,” adds McLaren, “it’s the classic story of the 80s. It’s about a girl who finds it cheaper and easier to tape her favorite discs off the radio… which is why the record companies are so petrified.”

“The other big advantage of cassettes, of course, were that they were recordable,” elaborates Steven Levy in a recent Gizmodo piece celebrating the thirty-year anniversary of the Walkman.

You’d buy blank 90-minute cassettes (chrome high bias, if you were an audio nut) and tape one album on each side. (Since most records were shorter than 45 minutes, you’d grab a song or two from another album to avoid a long dead spot before the tape reversed.) And you’d borrow albums from friends and tape your own. You could also tape from other cassettes, but the quality degraded each time you made a copy made from a copy. It was like an organic form of DRM. Everybody had a box with hand-labeled cassettes and before you went on a car trip you’d dig in the box to find the tunes that would soundtrack your journey.

TapeThe magnetic tape was as much a part of the journey as the road. The portability and recordability of cassettes, which all sounds so very labor intensive now, were the precursor to today’s MP3s and iPods. Just as the book individualized the exchange of stories and information, the cassette tape and its attendant technologies individualized music listening.

Seeing the iconic cassette tapes on the shirts of the teens these days, like some technological Che Guevera, confirms Heraclitus’s conjecture that generations cycle on thirty-year intervals. You’re not likely to see the same thing come of the compact disc (it’s more of a RuPaul than a Che), so here’s to the cassette tape, the 3.5″ disc of the stereo.

[Tom Waits cassette art by iri5]

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