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Play it again: The remarkable revival of cassettes

The humble cassette is making a comeback, and is now a crucial part of the musical landscape in many different parts of the world.

Record Store Day celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, with thousands of independent shops taking part across the UK, and seasoned vinyl junkies clamouring alongside casual collectors for a chance to take home an exclusive release.

The nation’s wax obsession is showing no signs of waning; the appeal of tactility, that ‘warm’ analogue sound and the fact that its limitations oblige us to enjoy one album, in order, at a time being the most commonly cited reasons. However, while records continue to be celebrated with cultish enthusiasm, their technological successor, despite being smaller, cheaper and possessing similar tactile qualities, somehow fails to attract the same nostalgic veneration. 

Like many children of the Eighties, my love affair with music didn’t start with vinyl, it started with tapes, more specifically the dusty selection stacked in the glove compartment of my parents’ car.

The Wanderers soundtrack, which gave me my first taste of early Sixties soul from Ben E King and The Shirelles. A compilation of The Who’s early years, opening with My Generation, which made me ache to be at teenager. My dad’s bootleg Johnny Winter cassette which a friend had carefully taped from an LP for him in the Seventies.

I savoured every car ride and we listened, rewound and listened again, until the tapes began to disintegrate. Once that happened, every glitch, burp, wow and flutter became part of the listening experience too. 

My first Walkman was a revelation. Music was suddenly autonomous and private – I no longer had to argue with my sister about who controlled what we listened to.

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I expanded my taste and my character between those little black foam headphones. For Christmas and my birthday all I wanted were cassettes, and in between I would tie up the landline phoning our local pirate radio station, requesting songs and hovering my fingers over the play and record buttons on the family stereo so I could listen again the next day on the walk to school. Mixtapes were swapped and shared in the playground, and friendships were won and lost over whose were best.

Cassettes were my first love.  

CDs became the dominant technology as I approached my teens, and I always resented their fragility; how they skipped and scratched and had to be handled with such care. Making mix CDs and dragging MP3s into an iTunes window felt clinical and impersonal.

Then the iPod arrived and negated the mixtape format altogether, and music was no longer something to be touched at all. 

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In many parts of West Africa and the Middle East the cassette’s popularity has endured. DJ Brian Shimkovitz encountered a thriving musical economy of DIY tapes during a trip to Ghana in the early Noughties.

He launched a blog, Awesome Tapes from Africa, along with a record label soon after to share his discoveries, from scratchy highlife to synth-led squelchy homemade afro-disco. Amsterdam-based DJ Moataz Rageb, AKA Disco Arabesquo, has been building a cassette collection of Egyptian funk and disco for many years and is set to release a selection of his favourites on a new compilation called Sharayat El Disco on the We Want Sounds label in June. Rageb credits the cassette format as a catalyst for youth culture across Egypt; tapes are cheap, accessible and easy to share and gave young people a new musical independence.

Cassettes may yet reclaim their cultural cachet in the UK too.

Ninja Tune’s Strictly Kev (aka DJ Food) believes the comeback has already begun, and that it’s no bad thing. “The cassette is cheap and easy to produce,” he says. “Bands are going to be looking to other formats for a fast turnaround now that vinyl waiting times and costs are through the roof.”

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He also rebuffs the notion that records are inherently superior. “When tapes first came out there were all sorts of claims made for their quality and clarity, then it was the CD, now it’s vinyl’s turn again.” 

Giorgio Carbone, co-founder of Mars Tapes in Manchester, which claims to be the UK’s last cassette shop, agrees. “The revival is surely underway,” he tells me. “More and more artists are now releasing on tape, and even big record labels have reintroduced the format on their catalogues.”

The shop’s clientele ranges from newcomers looking for a selection of tapes, and a Walkman or boombox as a starter kit, to serious collectors who visit every week and browse the new stock. As with vinyl, the tangibility of cassettes seems to trump the lack of convenience. “Streaming is a great tool, but nothing beats the feeling of holding and owning music,” Carbone adds. “And they fit inside your pocket!”

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer
@djdebgrant

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