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Davis, California

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The future looks retro

The end of a decade usually signifies a time of reflection and assessment. What the hell happened in the last 10 years? What’s changed since we apprehensively watched Dick Clark deliver us into the new millennium? The simple and correct answer is technological progress. But just as the future never goes quite according to plan, technological progress is also never without backlash.

I assume everyone is familiar with the cassette tape. This once popular and convenient musical format, beloved by our parents, has been all but abandoned. Adorning bargain bins across the U.S., it quietly reminds us of the devastating effects of the digital revolution.

Recently, though, cassettes and cassette culture have been undergoing a grassroots revival. As more and more mainstream record stores close, more and more music specialty stores and microlabels open. As CD’s continue to collect dust at Walmart, artists like the Dirty Projectors sell out cassette releases of their newest album. All signs point to a new cassette culture on the horizon.

The movement had its peak in the late 1970s up to the early ’90s, quickly becoming a fixture in the underground music community. Several factors contributed to the emergence of the cassette culture; recording equipment was becoming more portable and inexpensive. Musicians could record, duplicate and distribute their music cheaply, without the trappings of studios and A&R personnel. It was a democratization of musical production. As a result, an abundance of independent, cassette-only labels sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic. These musicians and labels found exposure in the medium of college and non-commercial radio, gaining attention during the period. By the ’90s, the advent of CD-Rs and eventually MP3s sent cassette tapes into obsolescence.

Ben Johnson, a local DJ and Davis alumnus explained some of the reasoning behind recording onto cassettes in an e-mail interview.

“One of the main things I use them for is recording musical ideas or mixes when I practice DJing,” Johnson said. “My tape deck usually sits on the desk right by the turntables – you just turn it on and hit record. To record into a computer, you have to boot it up, load up a program, choose a place to save your files and then you have to watch the levels all the time since overloading a digital recorder sounds like garbage instantly. Tapes you can clip a bit and they still sound fine, it’s more forgiving.”

Cassettes are not without flaws. They hiss. They often suffer from what is known as wow and flutter. The tape gets jammed and mangled. Tape decks are no longer ubiquitous. The Internet is overrun by free, high fidelity recording software. And considering that the use of tapes in the ’80s was out necessity rather than choice, why exactly has cassette culture come back into vogue?

The current underground cassette movement is as much pragmatic as it is reactionary, says Rick Ele, a long time KDVS DJ and avid music collector.

“For some people, having an MP3 doesn’t satisfy the need to own something on an enduring format,” Ele said. “CD-R’s, as we’ve found out, have an average life cycle of five to ten years. This new cassette underground is following in the tradition of the older CD-R’s, with the same homemade, do-it-yourself aesthetic. In spite of the hiss and other flaws of cassettes, a lot of fetishists appreciate and cherish that effort.”

Ele said the movement is also reactionary to how lackluster and “unspecial” the MP3 format is.

“The MP3 has changed people’s listening habits. Now, when buying or listening, no effort is required. You can preview songs, download the ones you want, delete the ones you don’t. It has taken all of the patience out of enjoying music.”

“Cassettes have been abandoned and disregarded,” said Simi Sohota, KDVS 90.3 FM DJ and cassette connoisseur. “People, who have acquired massive collections, sell them for dirt cheap. They often don’t even know the worth of what they’re selling.”

Sohota said the romanticism of listening to one side of a tape at a time, in the style of playing a record, is a bonus to the cheap, analogue cassette format.

“The over-efficiency of MP3’s and even CD’s makes you uninvolved with the music,” Sohota said. “The interaction of fixing the tape, flipping it, searching through songs somehow makes the experience more gratifying.”

BORIS FREYMAN can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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