Everyone who grew up with a tape deck remembers mixtapes, or compilation tapes, as we used to call them in the UK. They remember sitting with a pile of records or CDs, assembling the perfect order, sending the right message. The narrator of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, Rob Fleming, had a set of parameters that had to be observed: “You can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs, and … oh, there are loads of rules.”
“My first girlfriend and I had a cassette,” remembers Britt Daniel, frontman of Spoon. “She’d put a song on it, then give it to me. I’d keep hold of it for a couple of days, then put a song on and give it back to her. They were all message songs – my communication skills were not top-notch, but it was very sweet.”
“I used to try to impress with a really wide variety of genres,” says Adrian Quesada of Black Pumas. “I knew a little bit about jazz, so I’d always put some jazz on. There was always a ballad or two. And there was always some hip-hop that I thought the girls would like – A Tribe Called Quest.”
Mine were a succession of tapes of mid-80s indie and old psychedelia. I’d sneak into the office at Boots in Slough, where I worked in the holidays, photocopy fragments of book covers and postcards to make a collage cover to wrap around the J-card insert, with the title on the spine – each one was numbered entry in a series called Never Say No to Perfect Popcorn – and then send to whichever beneficiary I felt most deserving.
Mixtapes, though, were just one way the cassette had a seismic impact on the music industry, as explored in two new books – Unspooled by Rob Drew and High Bias by Marc Masters. The format instilled fear of piracy in the music industry, yet did more than any prior invention to spread music around the world.
In the developing world, where major labels operated near-monopolies, they were a means to put music into circulation that held no commercial interest to the big companies, spurring the recognition of genres in the process (the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman began as one of the wedding singers whose sets were sold on cassette at stalls, before he was heard by western tape collectors and won an international audience). Cassettes spurred the spread of hip-hop and thrash metal, created a micro-economy for go-go in Washington DC, and they became (and in many cases remain) the preferred medium for lo-fi and experimental music.
“Cassettes have a bunch of different roles,” Masters says on a video call, sitting in front of a shelving unit of, yes, tapes. “The most important one is the freedom they afforded both listeners and artists to create their own musical experiences, and be able to share and pass around those experiences. It was a way to listen to music that was in the listener’s control rather than dictated to them. But probably even more important is the fact that musicians could use them to get their music around without having to get it accepted by labels or pay for expensive studio time.”
You could also see them not just as a way to hear music, but as tools in the fight against repression. “There were political ramifications to the spread of the cassette in the 1970s and 1980s in some countries,” Drew says, “especially authoritarian regimes such as the USSR and Poland. Suddenly there was not just music but propaganda being spread around by cassette.”
Cassettes didn’t exist without hardware, though. It became the preferred format of hip-hop after the invention of the boom box and the car stereo (Masters’ book goes into detail about the New York car services that sold themselves on the basis of having the latest mixtapes, with exclusive shout-outs for the drivers from the featured MCs). The Walkman made portable, individual music a possibility and became a great vehicle for the mixtape. And the Tascam Portastudio – an affordable recorder that allowed musicians to mix down four tracks to cassette – opened up home recording (Bruce Springsteen released his Portastudio demos as the Nebraska album, after deciding full studio versions of the same songs with the E Street Band couldn’t capture the mood he desired).
The format’s spread was also dependent on an act of both generosity and commercial pragmatism by its maker. The first “compact cassette” was developed by Lou Ottens of the Dutch electronics giant Philips and released in 1963 (it was advertised as an aid for recording speech, not music). Its great asset was not sound quality, but portability and ease of use, compared with the reel-to-reel tapes that had come before. To make sure its invention would dominate the market, Philips licensed it to other companies.
Given it invented both the cassette and the CD, does Philips have a claim to being the most important company in the history of recorded music? “There is a big argument to be made for that,” Masters says. “It’s also weirdly ironic that they would be interested in developing a format [CD] that they must have known had a chance to knock off the cassette. But there’s something admirable about that. So many companies entrench themselves in the one thing that they developed and don’t see that the future might come and knock them off – like Blockbuster, holding on to renting videotapes for ever.”
For several years now, there have been claims of the return of the cassette. Those claims, to be frank, are overplayed. Though sales in the UK have been rising for the last 10 years, they still only amounted to 195,000 in total in 2022, according to the BPI. In the US, sales rose by 28% to 440,000, out of 79.89m physical album sales. The bulk of those sales are major-label releases, which causes Masters a little irritation. “The main point of putting out pre-recorded cassettes right now is that they’re cheap,” he says. “Major labels don’t have to care if they’re cheap, and they sell them for way more than they should.”
On the other hand, though, he notes that the majors’ interest is helping keep cassette production going, then that in turns helps the labels and artists in the underground for whom cassettes are still their lifeblood. “I’m willing to live with a little hipsterism if it helps the more meaningful part of the situation.”
One of the people at the meaningful end is Fernando Aguilar, co-founder of the California pop-punk cassette label Stay Tough, which sprang out of the hardcore/power violence/grindcore label he ran. “For the hardcore scene, the music is naturally lo-fi. So there’s no difference between dubbing it on a cassette or doing it on CD or vinyl. But for emo and pop-punk, it’s more of the nostalgia factor. I’m working with a lot of screamo bands, and all they want to do is cassettes. I think the warmth of it enhances the lo-fi aspect of it.”
For a label such as Stay Tough, working on cassette is also a matter of economics. The usual run is about 50 copies, and breaking even is “punk gold, right there”. That’s a lot easier when your main outlay is blank tapes, rather than pressing vinyl. At the moment, Aguilar says, he’s paying about $1.16 (92p) per blank tape, and 50 cents for a case. Vinyl, by contrast, is likely to have a minimum run of 100 units and to cost much more. The Musicol Recording Studio in Columbus, Ohio, for example, quotes $1,345 (£1,079) for 100 12in records in plain white paper sleeves. And with cassettes, Aguilar doesn’t have to join the long queue for vinyl pressing plants (currently six months at Musicol) – he can go from getting the recording from the band to having a cassette ready to sell in a fortnight, then sell them for between $4 (£3.20) and $8 (£6.40) apiece.
Even the underground is affected by the mainstream, though. Aguilar noticed an uptick of interest in cassettes after the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy, in which the character Peter Quill constantly played an ancient mixtape. That same year, 2014, a mixtape also featured in the TV series Over the Garden Wall. “When that and Guardians of the Galaxy happened a lot more people started popping up with tapes.”
Stay Tough also has a Bandcamp page for downloads. So does Aguilar think people really listen to his bands on cassette? He laughs. “Mainly, no. You buy them to support the musicians, and for the album cover. And also because it looks cool. Whether younger kids actually play them is up for debate; I personally don’t think so.”
But still the cassette survives. It may not have the romance of vinyl. It certainly doesn’t have the fidelity of the CD. But as long as there is an underground, and as long as people cherish the physical – and can’t afford to press vinyl or want to be able to do everything from recording to distributing themselves – it will continue to survive. Home taping didn’t kill music; it helped it live.
High Bias by Marc Masters (The University of North Carolina Press, £20.95). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.