Crinkles and a background noise: the love for the unpolished cassette tape

Kevin Verwijmeren smiles at me in the hall of the Dordrechts Museum, where he has just played a concert with ambient music. That is also allowed: I paid twenty euros for his first album, which was released on vinyl. But when I proudly tell him that I recently started my own music label and that I have just released a cassette tape by a Japanese artist, his laugh fades. “I’m a physicist by background,” he says. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to release something on cassette.”

Well, what do I indeed see (35) in that ‘old stuff’? Even the inventor of both the cassette tape and the compact disc, engineer, inventor and former Philips director Lou Ottens, said in 2018 in NRC that “the CD is much better”. He also dealt with the often heralded ‘warm’ sound of vinyl in that interview: „I think people mainly hear what they want to hear. There are always madmen who want to look back to the past.”

Also read: The man of Philips inventions such as cassette tape and CD did not have a ‘proud meter’

In my cramped downtown studio, two cabinets with about 600 cassette tapes currently take up a significant amount of space. Is it nostalgia? Maybe partly. As a child I experienced the cassette tape and had the classic experiences. Recording top 40 songs from the radio, trying to hit the stop button just in time for the DJ’s talk. Twist back tape with a pencil to untangle it. Create and record your own programs with friends – including self-invented commercials. But at that time, the nineties, the CD was already established and even in its heyday. My own first singles and albums were compact discs.

My real love for cassettes came later, after I was 25, after I ended up in obscure alternative musical circles where these sound carriers were still eagerly circulating. When I look in my closet now, I see the story behind every box. From tapes that I received from friends years ago, when their projects were still new and unknown – sometimes with a tiny personal message written in the booklet.

Or Celer’s, one of my favorite musicians, that I bought from himself for two glasses of whiskey in a Tokyo bar. One artist led me to the next, because musicians often record splits where you discover a new artist on the B side. And then there was the first cassette tape with my own experimental project in the genre ‘harsh noise’ released by a small label. I also have an obscure taste in music, albums are still being released on tape in those circles. The cassette tapes are time machines that start working as soon as I open the plastic boxes.

The way in which you play an album is very important for the experience of music. The digital revolution and streaming services such as Spotify took that experience away, and reduced active listening to the passive undergoing of musical wallpaper. You never play a cassette tape by accident or involuntarily, you put it on consciously – just like an LP. While rewinding and forwarding and flipping a tape you can, no, you have to think about what you just heard.

And then the booklets! Many vinyl enthusiasts like to talk about LP covers as works of art in themselves, but the J-card or inlay (the paperwork in the cassette case) forces artists to curb their originality on a playing space of 101.5 by 104 millimeters. A poem on the inside of the card, embossed paper, handmade collages on short-run releases: the bursts of creativity amaze me every time I open a box.

Photo Thomas Nondh Jansen

Straps as a weapon

Cassette tapes have been used by billions of people in the past and have influenced the course of history in many places. For example, the 1979 Iranian Revolution was fueled by tapes of Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches. The cassette tape also had considerable influence in China, when the market there, after decades of communist censorship, was suddenly flooded by numerous genres of Western music – which inspired young Chinese musicians to create unprecedented mixtures of, for example, Iron Maiden-like guitar playing with punk vocals. Tapes were used as a weapon of war in the Vietnam War. Recordings from rural areas were blasted to represent voices of the ghosts of dead Viet Cong fighters, calling on their comrades from hell to lay down their weapons.

Why not just join the vinyl renaissance?

Worldwide, the cassette tape democratized access to music for ordinary citizens, who could suddenly buy albums for little money, record music from the radio and – to the chagrin of many artists – copy recordings. This transformed the experience of music, for which people had until then been dependent on what was played on the radio, on concerts or very expensive long-playing records.

All that aside, a declaration of love like this is, of course, hyper-personal. And the nice thing about passion is that all rational counter-arguments miss the point.

The muscles of good taste

Why don’t I focus my recording nostalgia on the vinyl record, why not just join the broad-based vinyl renaissance? Records have a warm sound and a (usually) beautiful cover: with the purchase you show the muscles of your good taste. But that’s not my point. It is the unpolished nature of cassette tapes that appeals to me. They don’t try to sound better, warmer or clearer than streams or CDs. They are cheap: for the price of one LP you have four. And you can be a little sloppy with it. Box broken? Fine, just put a new one on.

Rest the sound quality. Almost all descriptions that come to mind have negative connotations: stuffy, raw, gritty. And then the magnetic tape on which the music is stored is also vulnerable, subject to decay. All true. But are those real drawbacks? To me, the tape sound has more life and character than the clinical CD sound or the deadly MP3 sound, which is literally compressed. For me, not only the music on the cassette counts, but also the life of the sound. The crackles, the soft background noise, the distortions that surround the songs.

And that transience, well, it gives a cassette extra value. Over the years, the sound can change: more uniqueness and life! And tape is reusable. If you are tired of the contents of the tape, you simply rinse something new over it.

I know from experience that there is an unspeakable charm to wash local punk music over a live Peter Gabriel album. Or you send a recorded letter to a friend abroad. Or you perform a romantic act and treat someone to a mixtape: a cassette tape with meaningful songs that you choose for your loved one, possibly accompanied by recorded messages to your sweetheart.

Also read: Why noise is indispensable in music

Cassette culture

Fortunately for me, there is a small community of fellow enthusiasts with whom I play and exchange cassette tapes. And on social media, you’ll also find broader efforts to keep the ‘cassette culture’ alive; exchange networks for tapes, collaborations between musicians who each take care of one side of the tape in a so-called ‘split’.

Others release their own albums on tape or run a do-it-yourself tape label. I myself now participate in a ‘tape swap’, a kind of cassette tape calendar in which 12 musicians each record one exclusive album per year, and forward it to the others. Every month I receive a private release.

And no, it is not a shadow economy, not a utopian, anti-commercial gospel. Only fun and love drive me. It is life-enriching to nurture an obscure passion – especially in a time so demanding that you don’t really have the time or attention for it. What is your cassette tape?

History of the Cassette Tape
From Fritz Pfleumer to the Walkman

1928
The German engineer Fritz Pfleumer designs magnetic tape on which sound can be stored. Previous researchers have already described that it should be possible to record sound on magnetic tape, Pfleumer was the first to succeed in doing so.
The 30’s
Pfleumer gives the German electronics company AEG the rights to use his invention to design the first tape recorder: the Magnetophon. This first type and the later developed reel-to-reel recorders have two large coils between which the magnetic tape is played. That works well for sound playback, but is inconvenient to operate for private, inexperienced consumers.
1963
Philips engineer Lou Ottens (1926-2021) and his team designed the cassette tape, intended for compact storage of audio via magnetic tape. A cassette player, the Philips EL 3300, will also be launched immediately, giving citizens an easy way to record, play and copy music.
1968
Philips introduces the first car radio with cassette tapes. A few years earlier, Ford already did this in the United States, with the common counterpart of the cassette tape: the 8-track.
1979
Sony introduces the Walkman, with which consumers can listen to tapes on the go.

1982

Philips and Sony are jointly developing the compact disc, which once further developed could store a much clearer sound than the tape or LP. The sound carriers coexist harmoniously for a while, but eventually tape and vinyl are supplanted by the CD – which in turn will suffer from the download and streaming revolutions.

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