An ode to the short but influential life of the audio cassette.
About a decade ago, when my kids were still in grade school, we happened to find ourselves as a family driving in my grandmother's Acura sedan, which she had purchased sometime around 1991 or 1992. The early 90s, for those of you who weren't around for it, was just at the dawn of the digital music era; it was unusual for a car to come equipped with a CD player back then. Like most people of her generation I suspect, my grandmother was not the sort of person who upgraded her car's audio system to embrace the latest technology. (She was also not the sort of person who upgraded her car either: she purchased a grand total of two new automobiles between the Nixon and Trump administrations.) And so we found ourselves driving around northern Florida with only an FM radio and a cassette player as a source of music—and needless to say, no cassettes on hand to play through the stereo. At some point, I gestured to the little slot in the dashboard where the cassette was supposed to be inserted, and asked my kids what they thought it was for. They were completely baffled by the question. One of them thought it might be a place to store small items, like keys. I'm pretty sure they had no recollection of ever seeing a cassette tape in their lives.
That story came to mind a few months ago, when I was reading David Byrne's wonderful book, How Music Works, preparing for our conversation the TED Interview. (The main interview is now live, and I'll be posting a special conversation with Byrne about his creative workflow here at Adjacent Possible in a few days -- you know the drill, if you want to hear those "How Ideas Happen" episodes you should upgrade to a paying subscription.) In How Music Works, Byrne has a section about the cultural impact of the music cassette that I found completely revelatory, though I lived through this history and should have probably thought about it more.
That episode in my grandmother's car had made me realize just how decisively cassettes had been exiled from the landscape of consumer tech. My kids still had a basic understanding of what an FM radio station was, and were obviously aware of vinyl records. The cassette tape, on the other hand, had dropped off the map altogether. But Byrne's book made me realize that the cassette was also a surprisingly recent platform. Philips developed the technology in 1963, and it didn't become a mainstream platform for music distribution until the 1970s. Its short tenure as a core technology of the music business happened to coincide almost precisely with the span of my childhood and adolescence. And then it vanished.
The lifespan of the audio cassette may have been short—just two decades really—but its impact was enormous, thanks to two key features that made it different from any other consumer audio medium before then: it was portable and it was recordable. If you think about it, almost all of the hallmarks of the digital audio revolution were first previewed in cassette form. The whole idea of walking around in your own private musical headspace—now a ubiquitous experience in the post-iPod era—first appeared with the Sony Walkman in 1979, a product that depended on the portability of the cassette format. The practice of curating your own Spotify playlists has direct roots to the mixtapes that music fans would construct for their own personal enjoyment, or to share with their friends or romantic partners. The copyright infringement issues that would become so fraught with the emergence of filesharing services like Napster in the late 1990s were first previewed with the moral panic over "home taping" on audio (and video) cassettes.
In How Music Works, Byrne goes on to talk about the effect that audio cassettes had on musical form itself:
In India, the Gramophone Company virtually had a monopoly on the LP market. It recorded only specific styles of music (mainly ghazals—love songs—and some film songs), and they only worked with a handful of artists: Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, and a few others. Their stranglehold on recorded music lasted until 1980, when the Indian government decided to allow cassettes to be imported. The effect was rapid and profound: smaller labels blossomed and other kinds of music and artists began to be heard. Soon 95 percent of all commercial recordings in India were being released on cassettes.
The cassette not only transformed the kind of music people were listening to, it also dramatically increased the number of people who could record and share their own music, without the support of a major label—giving us the first glimpse of the long tail of music creators that is now a defining part of the industry. As Byrne writes:
Whole genres of music thrived as a result of cassettes. Punk bands that couldn’t get a record deal resorted to churning out copies of homemade tapes and selling them at shows or by mail order. These second- and third-generation copies lost some quality—the high frequencies would inevitably be reduced, and some dynamics would disappear as well, but no one seemed to care too much. This technology favored music that has been described as either “ethereal, ambient or noisy.” I remember getting self-copied cassettes of Daniel Johnston’s songs that must have been copied multiple times. The audio quality sucked, and it seemed like he had “overdubbed” vocals or instrumental parts on some songs while creating the recordings—all on cassette. It was an era of murky music. Quality was sliding down a slippery slope, but the freedom and empowerment that was enabled by the technology made up for it.
I hadn't really thought about it until recently, but the cassette format had a profound impact on my own life as well; at some point during eighth grade, inspired by reading stories about George Martin conjuring up Sgt Pepper's by bouncing tracks on the four-track recording console at Abbey Road, I bought two cassette players and a simple mixer from my local Radio Shack, and tried to create my own little private rock opera in my bedroom in suburban Maryland, by bouncing tracks on those two cassette decks. The resultant sound was both murky and barely musical, given that I had just started taking piano and guitar lessons at that point. But it gave me a taste of how much fun it could be to play the studio itself like an instrument, as Byrne's old collaborator Brian Eno once put it. Those two cassette decks ultimately led to a lifelong obsession with music tools and software. This, for instance, is what I'm seeing right now as I type these words into my computer:
And all that music gear in the picture is nothing compared to the massive collection of audio software I have on the computer itself: digitally re-created instruments, virtual synthesizers, plug-in effects, even software that simulates the acoustics of the Abbey Road studio itself. And the roots of this obsession—and the thousands of hours of creative play it has given me—were those two cassette decks that I wired together back in 1981.
My conversation with Byrne got me thinking about this general class of technology: some new innovation that gives you a tantalizing first ride on a larger technological wave that the innovation itself will ultimately be drowned by. The cassette was a trial run for a lot of usage habits and market forces that would ultimately become dominant once music started traveling on digital networks at the speed of light. And once those digital networks did appear, the cassette was almost instantly superseded. It was a glimpse of the future that, in a way, contained the seeds of its own destruction. Prescient obsolescence.
Are there other examples of this pattern? Hypercard—the great tantalizing glimpse of the future from my college years, which I have written about at length here—was one of those tools. It hinted at a world of self-authored hypertext networks, but when the real thing arrived in the form of the Web, it was instantly obsolete. So were the palaces of illusion that I wrote about in Wonderland: all the elaborate immersive environments that blossomed in the late 1700s and early 1800s—the phantasmagoria, the panorama—that ultimately consolidated into the singular platform of the cinema. But there must be other examples…
That question—are there other examples of prescient obsolesence in tech history?—would be an interesting conversation starter for an Adjacent Possible conversation, here in the threads, but also maybe in the new Substack Chat feature that they’ve just launched. I've been thinking that it might be fun to assemble in real-time every once in a while, with a vague topic in mind. Let me know in the threads below if that's something you might be interested in. I'll make this discussion open to all subscribers, paying or not, so the wider community can share thoughts. And don't forget to check out the Byrne conversation. We cover a lot of ground beyond just murky 70s punk rock cassettes, I promise you.
[Image courtesy of Matthias Wunderlich]