Where have all the cassettes gone?
Is the compact audio cassette now a musical artefact or just collector's pride?Investigating its relevance five decades since its birth
The first cassette I purchased was Michael Jackson’s Bad, from a tiny store in a shopping complex in suburban Bombay (now Mumbai). This was towards the latter half of the 1980s, when the shopping complex still mattered (because malls hadn’t been dreamt up yet) and was the only place where those who didn’t live anywhere near a large music store like Colaba’s Rhythm House could find audio cassettes of Western music. It was also a time when DN Road—the stretch between what was then Victoria Terminus and Churchgate station—was awash with pirated tapes, when albums released in the West would magically appear with poorly photocopied covers and inlays a few days later, and when anyone who owned a double cassette deck would have no problem making new friends.
It’s hard to convey the importance of the audio cassette to a generation weaned on iTunes, YouTube and Spotify. How does one explain the importance of a mix-tape, for instance, or the inability to jump from track to track at will that had a profound impact on how musicians produced albums? The only reason why some teenagers still know what a mix-tape looks like is the 2014 film Guardians Of The Galaxy, where the lead protagonist is emotionally attached to an old tape of songs curated by his mother. The film ended with him discovering a second cassette, which supposedly provides the soundtrack to a sequel that was released earlier this year.
Where did all the audio cassettes go anyway? It’s been over two decades since the format was an industry leader, and seven years since Sony stopped manufacturing its iconic Walkman. To put things into perspective, music cassettes arrived in the US in 1966, slowly elbowing the popular LP out of the way. Cassette decks for cars arrived a few years later, forever changing the way mankind travelled, and making long trips on India’s stressful roads infinitely more bearable. This was followed by the mass production of blank tapes, which inadvertently helped give birth to hip hop and helped young men like me impress young women by recording selections of songs for their exclusive listening pleasure. By the 1980s, bootleggers were making a killing worldwide, and could be found in most Indian cities by those who knew where to look. Sales began to decline by the early 1990s though, as mini and compact discs began to appear.
Chris George, founder and chief executive officer of the now defunct EasyBuyMusic.com, one of India’s first e-commerce sites focused exclusively on the music business, says his website sold audio cassettes until 2003, at which point the cost of CDs fell considerably and digital music took over. “We sold a cumulative of Rs45 crore worth of cassettes and CDs (the latter accounting for 25%) over three years," he says, “At an average price per cassette (Hindi and English) of Rs50 per tape. Unsold stock was just crushed and steamrolled into recoiled plastic."
R.H. Chhatrapati, vice-president, South Asia, physical, live and merchandising at the Universal Music Group, says his label stopped manufacturing cassettes seven-eight years ago—there was no market for the format. When asked about sales over the past decade or so in the Indian music industry, he says there is no data—the decline commenced over a decade ago, as demand for vinyl began to rise.
Not everyone believes the format is dead though. The National Audio Company, reportedly one of the few remaining manufacturers of cassettes in the US, produced more than 10 million tapes in 2014; sales went up 20% the year after. According to media reports, sales are still climbing, which isn’t something any company in India can claim. Sridhar T.V.N., a record company veteran, believes the only people in India still listening to audio cassettes are those who are too nostalgic to get rid of them. “Some are now waking up to the fact that they are making a comeback, like vinyl," he says, but admits to not knowing anyone who is on a collecting spree or mopping up last stocks of old releases from dealers or defunct stores. “No music company in this country imports or manufactures cassettes any more," he says. “Only cities like Lucknow and Kolkata have shops that still stock a few dusty tapes, even if they are selling the latest formats."
Delhi-based Moloy Ghosh is an exception. The 47-year-old runs a Facebook page called Audio Restorations, and spends much of his time digitizing rare audio recordings from audio cassettes and LPs. Interestingly, he says this is necessary because a lot of music simply hasn’t been transcribed into a digital format.
“In my experience as a restorer over the past seven years," he explains, “I have observed a lot of published recordings, mostly in the classical genre or in the form of rare Bengali compositions by musicians like Atul Prasad Sen, Rajani Kanta Sen and D.L. Roy, which were popular until around two decades ago when tastes changed, and which aren’t available in commercial digitized versions. They have niche audiences that may not make economic sense for companies, which is where my services come handy. Private recordings offer riches too, in the form of mehfils and live classical recordings of artists that they would love to preserve for posterity. The quality of such recordings can be weak, which is why remastering is a must for their preservation."
Ghosh doesn’t believe there is still a market for audio cassettes in India. “There are technical drawbacks," he says. “They get sticky and unplayable after 10-15 years even if preserved with utmost care." When asked why audiophiles still buy cassettes, considering they don’t offer the kind of fidelity that CDs or vinyl do, he says this is due only to the presence of thousands of private, rare recordings that will never be made available in commercial digitized formats.
There are still people who collect cassettes, although the numbers may be low. The Cassette Tape Collectors Society on Facebook, for instance, boasts of around 7,000 members and is one of the larger groups for enthusiasts to talk about out-of-print and rare cassettes. Players are still sold too, even in India. Philips sells its IN-RR216/N Mono Radio cassette recorder for approximately Rs1,595 online, while something called a Portable USB Tape Cassette-to-MP3 Converter Music Player Capture by DivineXt can be purchased for just under Rs2,000. On classifieds sites like Quikr and OLX, decks sell for anything between Rs5,000 (for an Onkyo double deck) and Rs9,700 (for a Technics Stereo Dual Deck).
Then there’s ELBOW, a prototype cassette player conceived by a Lithuanian audiovisual art duo called BrainMonk, which condenses the portable player to its bare essence, and has been wowing aficionados and designers over the past year. The final product is still to hit the market, but what it aims to do is allow users to interact with every tape, using a bi-axial arm (which rotates in two directions) and control wheel to manage what traditional players never could—playback control. It can also transfer audio to a computer and be pinned to clothing, presumably because Apple made both features mandatory after creating the iPod Shuffle.
Audio cassettes may have been a portable format, but no user can forget how the tape inside would often stretch or warp in our climate, or how the magnetic oxide would wear out and lead to a gradual but definite deterioration in the quality of sound. The only reason some still hold on to them, possibly, is the tactile memories they evoke, of simpler times when music charts and Grammy Awards meant something, when singers didn’t use AutoTune, and when an album really could become part of the soundtrack to one’s life.
I like to think that there are still a few romantic souls who believe in the power of a mix-tape, even though it is now purely conceptual, and executed either by burning a CD or curating a sharable playlist on a streaming site. Back in the day though, it was something you thought about long and hard, playing the role of sound engineer and producer, sitting before piles of cassettes as you struggled to record songs on just the right amount of tape on each side of a blank cassette. It was an intimate peek into who you were as a person, because it allowed someone else access to music that evoked something powerful within you.
I can’t remember the last time I played an audio cassette, simply because I haven’t owned a player for years. I still feel something stir within me though when I think about the thrill of opening a new one, popping it into a player and waiting for the hiss of magnetic tape to give way to the sound of a new album. iTunes can do a lot of things, but it can’t do that.