Where the tracks met the old wagon road stood a barrier no one but me could see
The joke in the middle of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever is mostly at the expense of cassette tapes. The 1989 album’s fifth track “Runnin’ Down a Dream” fades out on an endless guitar solo, after which Petty returns for a brief, non-musical interlude. “Hello CD listeners,” he says to those who had embraced the digital technology, then just seven years old. “We’ve come to the point in this album where those listening on cassette, or records, will have to stand up, or sit down and turn over the record, or tape. In fairness to those listeners, we’ll now take a few seconds before we begin side two. Thank you … here’s side two.”
The cassette, introduced in the mid-1960s, was becoming laughable by the time Full Moon Fever was climbing the charts. Despite inciting the portable music revolution when it was introduced, the pre-recorded tape had been rolling languidly along on the slack momentum of convenience. Sales began to unspool in the early 1990s and stopped almost a decade later. Compact discs were, well, more compact, more durable; kinks were quickly being worked out in vehicle players and, regardless of the many types of tapes (chrome oxide, metal and so on) that promised a better listening experience, CDs never harboured stowaway sounds like the faint, tinny whine on my new cassette copy of the Tragically Hip’s Fully Completely, which I bought in 1992. The days of standing up or sitting down to flip tapes, of rewinding them with Bic pens, of carrying them about in weird Naugahyde briefcases, were over.
And now, they’re not. Tapes, arguably once the most irrelevant of physical musical formats, are back, highlighting the relevance of physical musical formats in a way almost no other can. No joke. But there’s something a bit funny about it.
YouTube host Frank Landry admits there is no reason for the return. “New cassettes sound horrible,” Landry says. “They sounded better back in the day; and they didn’t even sound that good back in the day.” Since 2014, the Winnipeger has hosted a YouTube series called Channel 33 RPM, which has amassed more than 11,000 subscribers interested in vintage and new vinyl (in particular, metal, blues and classic rock). The first time he showed viewers cassette finds from a local thrift store, vinyl purists complained about precious time he spent covering the lesser format. Yet the nostalgia that drew him to LPs applies equally to cassettes. In fact, he admits that he recently bought a 30th-anniversary cassette reissue of Motley Crue’s Girls, Girls, Girls. He doesn’t sound at all surprised in his disappointment with it.
That hasn’t stopped Sunrise Records, Canada’s last-standing national music chain, from responding to what it says is a rising market demand for cassettes. My local store stocks a couple of racks’ worth that the space’s previous occupant, HMV (which folded in 2017), did not. That they’re tucked behind a pillar (with used cassettes going for $2.99 and some new ones for as much as $19.99), may inadvertently reflect VP of purchasing Tim Ford’s feelings about them.
We laugh, remembering how our favourite albums were “eaten” by the very machine trusted to play them.
He points to irony, not nostalgia, as a root cause of the tape’s resurgence. “Besides 8-track, it’s the lowest form of that kind of medium,” says Ford, whose personal music collection includes about 10,000 records and a relative handful of cassettes. “I don’t think it has the same nostalgic effect as vinyl. Vinyl is a little more romantic, whereas cassette is almost laughable nostalgia: ‘Oh, you remember when these stupid things were around?’ And you buy it and put it in your parents’ cassette player.” (The week before we spoke, he had done an interview about the fall of the CD.)
We both laugh about the ridiculousness of it all, remembering how our favourite albums were sometimes “eaten” by the very machine trusted to play them. But it’s obvious his own opinions about the poor sound quality, the absurdly small canvas the cassette provided for album artwork, or the faddishness of its resurgence, matter little. Currently, though CDs remain the store’s top-selling item, cassettes can be found at almost all of the 82 Sunrise locations. Sales double about every two months, and U.S. sales of cassettes shot up 35 per cent in 2017. Perhaps some respect, if not love, is due to the lowly format after all.
In Alberta, that respect is being paid by Arif Ansari, who, through a blog called the Calgary Cassette Preservation Society, has recognized the tape as one of the few remaining media of record for a particular period of local music. For just over a decade, Ansari has been digitizing his and others’ tapes from what he calls the “the glory days” of performing and taking in shows before the century’s turn.
“There was a really weird window in the early ’90s when nobody was putting out records. Or in the ’90s period. And up until 1995 and ’96, CDs were way too expensive. Every band was putting out tapes. That was the media. When you focus on archiving that stuff, you end up archiving a very specific snapshot of time in the music community.”
Were it not for a preference for tapes, there’d likely be nothing to archive. “It’s important to keep that history and keep those threads intact in the scene to build a stronger music community,” he says.
Ian Rowley and Parker Thiessen might argue the same, only they’d say that tapes aren’t coming back—because they never went away.
The experimental musicians are the creative force behind the cassette-based record label Pseudo Laboratories. With 28 releases issued in the four years since they began, Rowley and Thiessen (whose birthdays are close to that of the CD) have always gravitated toward underdog genres that epitomized the DIY aesthetic of tape.
“Cassettes as a format have always been there in punk and experimental music, electronic music,” Rowley says. “It’s a cheap, effective way to put out music and to do things yourself.”
The pair can turn a recorded album into 100 cassettes in a night, he points out. They meet at one or the other’s house and have a kind of taping bee: dubbing, stamping, folding liner notes and assembling. Bands sell them for $5 and still make a profit. Especially at a show, Thiessen finds that, “in this day and age it’s hard to sell that digital thing. People like to have that physical memory.”
Ford sees that souvenir-grab you find in all recording formats as driven by “the hunter-gatherer” in us all. The instinct is proving strong enough to make the Pseudo Laboratories model sustainable. Proceeds from the last project roll into the next. “We don’t put our own money into this,” Thiessen says .
Just as Ansari is working to resurface a scene saved by cassettes, Pseudo Labs is using them to bring attention to one that might otherwise be buried in the unending avalanche of content that is the digital era. And they feel they can continue to succeed, says Thiessen, “as long as tapes are available.”
Ansari, it turns out, has resurfaced some of his own music on the Calgary Cassette Preservation Society: three tapes issued by his own band, the Parkades. “Not many people liked us,” he says. “We were much derided.” But, now in his mid-40s, he’s glad to have the record of it just the same.
When he mentions his old band, it occurs to me that, sitting in the basement of my parents’ house is my own weird Naugahyde case of cassettes. Among the dozen or so tapes is the one I wondered about: a collection of four of my own songs, just me and an acoustic guitar, dated May 9, 1996. I bring it home and pop it into my player on a Sunday afternoon.
The effect is like reading an old diary: it’s overly earnest, poorly executed, kind of boring, contrived—the stuff of a young man struggling to use sensitivity and angst to impress girls. There are moments of surprise—a catchy if truncated riff, an almost-pleasing vocal melody—that make the songs not as bad as they should be.
For the most part, though, they strike me as perversely useful. Records like this are like benchmarks, precious reminders that you’ve made progress, even if not yet enough. Just as I’m feeling the urgent need for digitization, my daughters walk in.
“Hey,” I say to my oldest, a five-year-old. “Who’s this on the radio?”
She sits down beside me and listens. “Tom Petty?” she asks, giving an answer that’s standard to this guessing game. I tell her to listen harder. A moment later, her eyes go wide.
“You!” she says, almost an accusation.
That’s when my youngest, who’s three, moves toward the stereo and puts an ear nearer the speaker.
“It’s on one of these,” I tell the three-year-old as I hand her another tape. She takes the foreign object and furrows her brow as if offended.
“No!” she says. She chucks it back in the weird Naugahyde case and and reaches toward a pile of discs sitting near the player. “Show me the CD.”