Richard Goldsmith, of the upscale hi-fi geeksters’ paradise Audio Gold, dismisses the notion of a a dying format. “I’m not sure there’s any such thing,” he says. Cast your eye around his North London shop, and you can see why he might say such a thing. Walking past turntables and transistors that look like exhibits from a design museum, he shows me a cassette player priced at a bracing £450. It’s made by Nakamichi, who prided themselves on divining hitherto unimagined clarity from the humble C90. The best thing about it, though, is the way it changes tape sides. Through the Perspex window, you can see a mechanism, tantamount to a small robot hand, physically turn the tape around to start playing it. Goldsmith says he would be surprised if the machine is still here by the end of the week. They are, apparently, popular with middle-aged reggae fans.
Tempting as it is to herald the return of the cassette, it appears that the format introduced by Philips as a dictation aid in 1963 never quite went away. This week Island Records announced that sales of the 4,000 cassettes they decided to produce of Words for You had exceeded all expectations. HMV and the leading supermarkets have long since stopped selling tapes, but the album, on which celebrities such Joanna Lumley and Martin Shaw read poetry while classical music trills prettily along in the background, still managed to sell out on Amazon. By contrast, only 746 of the 200,000 copies of Words for You sold have been downloads. Thousands more cassettes are being manufactured in time for Christmas. “What’s exciting,” says an Island spokesman, Ian Brown, “is that we don’t know how big the market is because no one realised there was a demand.”
You can’t help feeling that this has been a howling great oversight. Having worked out that old people are one of the few age groups that will pay for music, Decca threw its weight behind We’ll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn and saw their efforts repaid with a No 1 record. How many more might they have sold if they had also put it out on tape? It’s tempting to smile indulgently at your silver-haired elders as they persist with their old Val Doonican cassettes. It may just be, however, that older people are privy to specialised knowledge that comes only with the passing of the decades. There are some environments in which the tape wins over all other formats.
As the iconically hip, left-of-leftfield guitarist of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore may be an unlikely bedfellow for the sort of septuagenarians who think Mpegs are what you hang your Mcoats on. But even during the CD’s early supremacy, Moore’s devotion to the cassette never wavered. Four years ago he published Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, a love letter to what he calls “the most personal of all formats”. Occasionally he produces limited-edition cassette runs of releases on his Ecstatic Peace label. “The cassette offers one of the great listening experiences,” he says. “That friction of the tape against the head is unbeatable. Then you’ve got the aesthetic difference. You find a mixtape that someone has made for you, and there is no mistaking the amount of care and affection that has gone into it.”
By any criteria, Moore’s obsession is extreme. He has thousands of meticulously filed CDs released on cottage-industry imprints with such names as Chocolate Monk and Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers — labels that equate the cassettes’ affordability and apparent obsolescence with their underground credentials. He is not alone. In Camden Market, the must-have accessory of 2009 was the bag designed to look like a cassette.
It’s all very well, but does this sort of loyalty have its basis in anything other than nostalgia? Not if a furious essay that appeared two weeks ago on the American music site Popmatters is anything to go by. Despite left-field releases by the likes of Dirty Projectors and Crystal Castles that sold out their cassette runs, Calum Marsh, author of Reconsidering the Revival of Cassette Tape Culture, insists that “at best, the cassette revival is merely a vacuous fad of no genuine value . . . at worst, a confused, cultural misstep more dangerous than most would care to admit”.
Might it not be that tapes offer something that subsequent technologies have failed to provide? Moore maintains that the CD is a vulnerable format that is designed to be re-bought. Anyone who has tried to keep CDs in a car — you might as well attack them with a cheese knife — must surely concur. On CDs the information is exposed. On cassettes it is protected by a plastic shell. The price of cassettes at my local charity shop — a can’t-give-them-away 20p a throw — suggests that, in the neophilia of the 21st century, these are considerations we may have simply forgotten about.
Since I started relieving Oxfam of their surplus, I have filled my car with albums by the Supremes, Van Morrison, James Brown and Talk Talk. Surprisingly, the cassette era even extends to relatively recent gems such as Radiohead’s Kid A. Better still, the foetal bass and padded cell production of that album’s highlights — Everything in its Right Place, Morning Bell — is perfectly suited to the warm, cocooned ambience of magnetic tape.
Of course, central to the lingering affection that people have for tapes is the fact that you could compile them yourself. “Home taping is killing music,” warned the skull and crossbones on the back of several major label releases in the early 1980s. I still have the first cassette of songs I ever recorded from the radio. Thirty years after I removed it from its case, my red ferric BASF C90 features excerpts from that Sunday night staple Star Choice, in which a celebrity of the day got to be DJ for a couple of hours. Separated only by inter-song banter from the Birmingham City star striker Trevor Francis are such hits as Chicago’s If You Leave Me and ELO’s Living Thing.
Victoria Hesketh, of Little Boots fame, is 16 years younger than me, but even she remembers sourcing her music by a similar means. “Oh, absolutely. You would sit by the tape recorder with your finger poised on the pause button because you’d want to catch it before the DJ started talking.” Take away the technologies of the era and such behaviour was no different from that of ten-year-olds illegally downloading the latest N-Dubz and Chipmunk hits to their computers. So why did it somehow not feel as wrong?
Moore thinks that the moral differential lies in the aesthetic merits of the two formats: “File sharing is utterly unsexy,” he says. “It takes no time at all to knock up a playlist from your iTunes folder and give it to someone.”
He surely has a point, and one that’s reflected in the monetary decline in the value of music. Everything to do with consuming music has become easier. In the past when you compiled a tape for someone, the time spent making it was central to its perceived value. You would also have a fairly good idea that each track followed on smoothly from the last one because the compilation would have been made in real time.
Moore compares DIY compilations to scrimshaws — pieces of whalebone on which voyaging sailors would make ornate carvings. “Sometimes I go to yard sales to buy cassettes compiled by people who are complete strangers to me. You see something that has ‘Marty’s Mix’ scrawled on it in ballpoint pen. You take it home and you don’t know if it’s going to be US post-punk hardcore or Kenny Rogers. Whatever it is, though, I know I’m getting a slice of someone’s life. Cassettes are the only format that can give you that.”