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Audio cassette: Rewind and Remember

Half a century of the cassette,a technology that truly brought music home

Half a century of the cassette,a technology that truly brought music home

And so it comes to be,this time of the year,that the compact cassette turns 50. Such mundane anniversaries and obituaries are a press staple now,with technologies streaking across the scene at furious speed in the last few decades. There have been sentimental accounts praising and mourning the floppy drive,the compact disk,the typewriter,the Walkman,the instant camera,and many,many more bits of tech ephemera.

The cassette was an interim stage in music storage and playback,it served our needs until it didn’t. We make much of these things not because of their special qualities,but because we feel bits of our own past receding. The cassette is what media scholar Sherry Turkle calls an evocative object. For many like me,it prompts images of the ’80s,of flimsy plastic cases,of glossy brown tape unspooling,of sticking little fingers into the middle to stretch it taut again.

Philips first showcased the compact cassette at the Berlin Radio Show in the annus mirabilis of 1963. But it didn’t become a widespread consumer technology until much later,especially in India,because of import restrictions. Their rarity is what made the standard Gulfie or Canadian immigrant dream of the two-in-one stereo even more alluring.

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It’s hard to imagine how radical and democratising the tape must have been then,how it anticipated many of the current anxieties around digital copying and sharing,around the manipulability of media,and whether you could trust your own ears and eyes.

The tape recorder welcomed regular users into the musical experience,like nothing else before it. You could record or erase,you could assemble an album at home and pass it around,leading to waves of corporate panic about the “death of music”. It also made the consumption of music much more private and portable — you could carry your tape player or Walkman around,listen to it alone. Mass producing cassettes was much easier than vinyl records,allowing younger and poorer listeners to own music.

And,happily enough,it made the mix tape possible. Anyone with a tape deck and some blank tape could make a home-made compilation,scrawl the song titles with a felt pen,and show off their own ineffable sensibility. You weren’t just consuming stuff,you were choosing and combining,making a new thing,trading it. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth,who put together a tribute to the technology in 2005,has written of the “love and ego involved in sharing music”. Trying to control that impulse,by shutting down whatever technology comes along,he says,“is like trying to control an affair of the heart. Nothing will stop it.”

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Cassette technology was destabilising in other ways around the world,like the tension it created between the big global record companies and independent insurgents. Around the world,it dramatically diversified the market,gave grassroots genres and hybrid pop experiments a chance to be heard — from Peru’s working class,streetwise chicha music to jaipongan in Indonesia or “Jawaiian” in the US,which blended reggae and Hawaiian pop.

It rocked India too — the ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel has written a vivid account of how cassette culture shook up the music industry,long dominated by the Gramophone Company of India and its HMV label,and the Lata-Kishore type of Hindi film music and ghazals it pushed. It took a Daryaganj businessman called Gulshan Kumar and his scrappy company,T-Series,to bust that taste-making monopoly. Kumar and his associates were the music makers,the dreamers of dreams,who imported tape and equipment from east Asia,released cover versions of GCI’s biggest hits,used legal loopholes and sometimes blithely ignored copyright. Small producers created new niches,devotional songs and folk music,songs in Garhwali,Bhojpuri,Punjabi,etc,sub-genres like rasiya,ragini,and urban protest music. This great widening of the scene was a direct gift of cassette culture.

Now,50 years on,cassettes live on in the West because they have hipster cachet,in the way that many analogue forms have avant-garde appeal. There are dedicated bands and online ­communities that celebrate the sound of tape and prize its lo-fi aesthetic. They are still valued as a middle finger to­ ­corporate music. But remember,there was a time,not so long back,when cassettes weren’t merely cute,they were cutting-edge and liberating.

First published on: 01-09-2013 at 10:48:53 pm
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