The Empowering Style of Cassette Tapes

A glitchy, low-fi medium that turned curation into creation

Clive Thompson

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A black cassette tape on a white background
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Cassette tapes have a weirdly Internet-like vibe.

By which I mean: Back in the 70s and 80s — when they were the hot new form of media — cassettes brought a quality to everyday life that presaged the creative spirit of the early web.

I was around back then, in elementary school and then high school, so I felt this first-hand. Tape recorders and cassettes had become cheap enough that teenagers could easily get their hands on them. Man, we dove in deep. We’d make mixtapes of our favorite songs and pass them around, giving each other a glimpse of our frequently oddball tastes. (I got obsessed with very early blues, and would splice together collections of scratchy 1940s songs I recorded from the Sunday-night blues hour of Q107, Toronto’s rock station.)

My high-school band and my friends’ bands would record ourselves, developing hacks to coax the best possible sound out of the terrible built-in microphones on the tape recorder. (One friend’s band discovered that by putting the recorder next to the bass amp and covering it with a specific pillow from their basement couch, it would act like a perfect filter, and the entire recording sounded amazing. No other pillow had the same effect.) A cousin of mine in Ottawa would send me tapes of him talking, in lieu of a letter; I’d send ones back. One neighborhood kid basically issued — via cassette — what we thought of as a “radio show” back then, but which I now, in retrospect, think of as a podcast.

I thought of all this on the weekend because I read Marc Masters’ terrific new book High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape. It’s a wonderful exploration of the history of how cassette technology came to be, and the wild culture it engendered: Indie labels cranking out releases direct-to-cassette, amateur ethnographers preserving vanishing local acts, hip-hop artists breaking out on mixtapes, experimental musicians producing cassette glitch-art, and more.

Since I’m a longtime obsessive about media forms, though, what really intrigued me were the lessons one can spy in why cassettes were so catalytic.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net