Rewind to the 1980s - are cassettes really on the way back?
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The Walkman is 40 this year. Nick Richards rewinds to their heyday and then fast forwards to the current day in which cassettes are enjoying a mini-revival
Rewind 40 years to a time before streaming, Spotify, iPods, file sharing, Napster and even CDs and the cassette was king. Anybody over 30 will probably remember a time when the humble cassette was really the best friend of any music fan. A flexible medium to record anything on simply gave it endless possibilities. It was a hard plastic-wrapped currency in the school playground, a way in to the record collections of both friends and their older brothers or sisters.
Blank tapes, mix tapes, compilation tapes, bootleg tapes, pirate tapes, taping the Top 40, just the phrase 'I'll tape it for you' was a portal to a whole new world – a way to impress friends, mates and potential lovers. A way of shuffling your music collection on to a hard copy, a way of documenting your music tastes for anyone willing to listen.
Of course they weren't just used for music – anyone who owned a Sinclair ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 will remember buying games on tape – and then also producing copies for your mates.
People talk about the DIY ethic of punk music in terms of home-made fanzines and producing their own vinyl records, but the music cassette did far more for unsigned bands to get radio play. The demo tape was the way to get exposure and, if you were lucky, to get that record deal.
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At the start of 1979 the cassette tape was about to get the perfect vehicle to showcase its dynamic portability and convenience. Over in Japan, a product was packed up in warehouses and ready to be unleashed across the world that would change the music scene of the 1980s.
The Walkman. Sony's portable music player, turns 40 this year.
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That fact alone shows how far we've come in our listening habits, but back on the eve of the 1980s, having portable moving sound was pretty revolutionary – and when you consider that for most of the 1980s the only option other than the radio in a car was a cassette and you'll probably remember just how much we used to rely on the four-inch long beauties.
Cassettes were first introduced in 1963, with pre-recorded music tapes first being sold across Europe in 1965. They enjoyed a 40-year lifespan before their demise just over a decade ago. In 2007 Curry's, the last big retailer to stock them, stopped selling tapes as the previous year just 100,000 had been sold in the UK. At their peak 30 years ago in 1989, annual sales of cassettes were around the 83 million mark.
While we moved on to CDs by the early 1990s, the Walkman, which was initially based on a recording machine for journalists, was still being made as late as 2010.
And, would you believe, since cassettes ceased to be available in shops, there has been a demand for them once again? Just in the way vinyl records have returned to our lives in a nod to nostalgia, there has been a resurrection of interest in all things cassette.
It's no way near as big as the vinyl resurgence, but non-mainstream bands are releasing music on cassette once more.
Music fan Sam Dawes, from Ipswich said: 'I had pre-ordered an album from the band Enter Shikari and with the record I also received the album on cassette too. Unfortunately I don't have a cassette player so it's a nice little bit of memorabilia from the band but music is starting to become more widely released on cassette now. I don't think it will hit the heights that the vinyl comeback has but it's becoming a common sight in most independent record shops that are still around.'
Promotional items count for a lot of the cassettes around in 2019 but there are sales – albeit a drop in the ocean in the music industry.
Last year's top selling cassette was by The 1975, who shifted 7,500 copies on cassette – enough for it to become the biggest selling pre-recorded cassette since 2004.
BPI director of communications Genarro Castaldo said: 'There has been a bit of a jump which has been building for a while but it's nothing like what we've seen with vinyl. There's never been more choice in terms of discovering music and cassettes fit in with that. Artists like to connect with their fans and if there's interest I'm sure the artists will put them out.'
There's even now a Cassette Store Day, set up following the huge success of Record Store Day, a day which began in 2013 to showcase the format. In the past five years artists as diverse as Green Day, Muse, Motorhead and The Strokes have released material on tape.
While the cassette revival is unlikely to see people buying Walkmans and reinstalling cassette players in their cars, it does give people of a certain age a warm glow to see cassettes again.
Who doesn't remember the thrill of taping the Top 40 on a Sunday evening? Fingers hovering over record and play trying to avoid as much talk from the likes of Tony Blackburn, Tommy Vance, Simon Bates, Richard Skinner, Bruno Brookes or Mark Goodier as you commit your favourite songs to tape.
Those days are now just fond memories for many people in their 40s and 50s – as is trying to rewind a tape using a pencil to save your Walkman's battery power.
Who didn't do that while enduring double maths back in the 1980s?
Despite the wide-spread use of tapes in the 1980s, they weren't a radio-friendly format as former Radio Norfolk DJ David Clayton explains. He said: 'We had 10 inch open spools of tape which carried an hour's worth of audio at seven and half inches per second and that's the point, the speed of the tape dictated the quality and the fact you could cut and splice it for editing – none of which you could do with cassettes.
'If we used cassettes at all it was to record some of the output to keep, or send to someone. In the late 1980s Sony produced a 'Professional Walkman' portable cassette recorder which some of us used for out in the field reporting. The quality was deemed good enough for recording speech interviews, but it had to be dubbed back onto reel to reel for editing purposes, so it was never the complete answer because every time you dubbed across onto magnetic tape from magnetic tape you lost a bit of audio quality.
'We preferred the cumbersome Uher reel to reel portable recorder for reporting. You could whip the tape off it, back at base, and start editing. No nonsense, except there's a whole generation of radio people who lean to one side having carried the Uher via the shoulder strap for years!
'I've still got a cardboard box of cassettes onto which I've recorded all sorts of things, probably a snapshot of my entire radio career but nothing now to play them on!'
Andrew Worsdale of Holt Vinyl Vault remembered the good and bad side of cassettes. He said: 'The beauty of the cassette lay in its utility as a home-recording medium. You could borrow two LPs and record them onto both sides of a 90-minute tape (or C90) for less than the price of one 7-inch single, and even re-record over the tape if you got bored. The industry, worrying about lost sales, countered with dire warnings on album inner sleeves – 'Home taping is killing music', accompanied by a menacing skull-and-crossbones graphic – but this was ironic, given that the same record companies were happy to manufacture blank tapes in 10-packs for sale in your local Woolies.
'Blankies' were perfect for recording the top 40 rundown from the radio, or curating your own personal mixtape through which you could showcase your breadth of taste to a potential paramour, with suitably cryptic messages penned on the index card to accompany each track. In the era of in-car cassette players, tapes could also be compiled to keep the whole family entertained during a long journey without annoying interjections from a radio DJ.
'As for pre-recorded cassettes of new-release albums, the vast price disparity with home-taped 'bootlegs' was compounded by the miserable packaging – no gatefold sleeve, no lyric sheet, just a miniaturised version of the album art printed on shoddy white card – and, even worse, the regular tampering with the original running order, to produce as close to equal an amount of music on each side of the tape, thereby cutting a few precious inches from the spool.
'The cassette remained the unloved poor relation of the vinyl LP, until both were supplanted – again temporarily, as it turned out – by the compact disc. There is talk of a cassette revival, but at the Vault we only retain one unloved cardboard boxful, retrieved from the stockroom on the rare occasions we are asked for them.'