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Time, mortality and the tape deck

One of the advantages of leading a disorganized life is that, from time to time, as you search for something you have mislaid somewhere, you come upon a number of other things you mislaid and forgot about long ago and discover their value all over again.

One of the advantages of leading a disorganized life is that, from time to time, as you search for something you have mislaid somewhere, you come upon a number of other things you mislaid and forgot about long ago and discover their value all over again.

A case in point occurred last Easter Monday afternoon, which I passed quite literally dusting off and rediscovering the cassette tape collection I stumbled on while looking for something else.

I suspect I am typical of most people my age in that I have a large collection of music tapes I never play anymore.

The cassette tape, even in the brief period of the ‘80s, when it pretty much reigned supreme in the music stores, was never a much-loved technology, at least not for the general public.

The tapes had a disturbing propensity to mangle themselves; they generated an irritating hiss over top of the music (a hiss you could tame a bit with Dolby noise reduction, at the cost of damping down the brightness of the high notes); and you often had to fast forward through a long stretch of wasted tape on one side, because the other side had more play time on it.

On the other hand, the record stores were quite fond of them: They were lighter and less bulky than vinyl records to ship and store, and you could fit considerably more stock on your retail shelves than you could with conventional music albums.

And, for all their faults, the cassette tape marked the start of a kind of sonic revolution—the advent of a lightweight, portable music medium we could start using to supply a musical soundtrack to our lives.

Starting with the “boom box” portable tape player, and moving on to the tiny Walkman personal tape player, they changed the way we related to music, both as consumers and producers.

With the Walkman-style personal tape player, listening to music became a much more private experience—in some ways, music became a thing less listened to and more overheard, a kind of sonic wallpaper to our walks, jogs, bike rides and car trips.

Tape recording also marked the beginning of the culture of music “piracy,” as consumers began taping their vinyl albums for use on their tape players, and started making tapes of their music collections to share with other people.

It became a common practice for young people to hand out at each other’s houses through an evening, jointly putting together a “party mix” tape of favourite songs from the host’s collection.

The record companies responded to this trend with the same ignorant wrath they display to the MP3 piracy of today, demanding that a “copying tax” be added to the price of all cassette tapes, regardless of whether they were to be used for making copies of music or not.

In Canada and the USA, they quickly got their way.

To this day, you are paying a 29-cent “private copying levy” on every 40-minute-plus cassette tape you buy, though these days it is pretty unlikely you are going to waste your time copying music on it. (That is more than the 21 cents you are paying for every blank CD you buy, though you can get a lot more music, at much better quality, on a CD; but who ever said Canadian laws had to make sense?)

The other major change the cassette tape brought about was the burgeoning of “grunge, “punk” and other alternative forms music in low-quality recordings, often distributed through “tape trading” networks.

Many bands started their careers as “tape traders” and scaled up later, as they developed a following, to professional studio recording.

And the impact of access to cheap recording and tape-making technology was not limited only to music or culture.

In Iran, for instance, cassette tapes of the revolutionary tirades of the Ayatollah Khomeini were wildly popular and widely distributed just prior to the Islamic revolution in that country.

It was the abundance of tape recorders and the ease of home-dubbing that allowed the Islamic revolutionaries to circumvent the Shah’s draconian censorship laws, and establish Khomeini’s credentials as the voice of the new regime.

Given the range and depth of its effects on human culture, then, it is perhaps a little sad that cassette technology tumbled so quickly in the early 1990s from its brief supremacy.

Nor is the technology likely to leave any legacy as lasting as that of the age of vinyl records.

Chemical-based, electro-magnetic, wear-prone devices that they are, cassette tapes are the most mortal of recording media.

Even when they don’t wear out, they eventually deteriorate and become unusable.

Of the 20 or so tapes I attempted to play last Easter Monday, two of them broke outright, and three more had playback problems.

Not a very good survival ratio for recordings not much more than 20 years old.

On the other hand, it is becoming easier to digitize your old tapes while they still have some life in them.

In pretty much any computer store, these days, you can pick up a simple little device that allows you to output your tapes to a digital device and then store them on your computer—all for not much more than $60.

If, like me, you have a large, forgotten collection of dying cassette music, you might do well to start shopping around for such a solution.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.