You may have missed it (it was pretty easy to miss) but last Saturday was International Cassette Store Day and, let’s face it, the outdated format hasn’t been making much noise for years.
At one point the tidy little package was even outselling the LP record, but both formats slipped into the ditch after the compact disc arrived on the scene.
Inspired by the resurgence of vinyl sales in past years and, of course, by Record Store Day (the third Saturday of April), a day celebrating the cassette was introduced four years ago by manufacturers of the once-popular music source.
But we shouldn’t expect cassettes to even come close to the renewed popularity of vinyl. The equipment required to play the tapes is not readily available, and the source itself was never that reliable to begin with.
The increase in sales of the cassettes in the ‘80s was spurred on by the equipment of the day. The Walkman (granddaddy of the iPod), big-assed boom boxes, and introduction of factory-installed stereo systems in just about every automobile promoted the portability of cassette tapes. You could take your favorite music with you (something so commonplace today, but difficult then).
Music never sounded as good on cassette as it did on LP, and the packaging had even less cover art and liner notes than a CD, but portability was the magic that popularized the format.
Yet, as portable as it was, magnetic tape never responded well to the elements and could easily be spoiled by exposure to sunlight and too much heat (conditions easily found in a locked car on an average July day). The small section of exposed tape in the actual cassette would, eventually, create some sort of problem. It was not perfect.
I was never a fan of store-bought, off-the-rack, pre-recorded cassettes, but will admit to a love affair with the blank tape. It was there, on a blank 90-minute TDK, that I would be allowed to create mixtapes from the thousands of records I owned.
A mixtape was a self-made product where you would pick and choose the correct music for the moment. A mixtape was created for yourself, or shared with and given to family, friends, and lovers.
A mixtape was all about you; it showed what you were listening to, where you were emotionally, and what you were feeling at the time.
It reflected time.
Now you couldn’t just slap a bunch of tunes on a tape and call it effective. I mean, it would do (sort of) but to create the perfect tape (well, really any mixtape at all) took time. It wasn’t like today’s assortment of digital downloads, and iTunes, where a few keystrokes and a couple of minutes could result in a playlist. No, to create the perfect mixtape took time. Real time.
To record a mixtape took even more time than 90-minute tape you were working with. You had to set recording levels for each song, and master the pause/play button. You had to know, to feel, which song would work next, or when you would add the right song into the mix. You could easily spend a couple of hours creating a tape, but it was worth it every second.
Sometimes your selection of tunes would be radically changed because the vibe of a certain song spontaneously reminded you of another song from the year or decade before. It was more about feeling than format, and as you built up the playlist it would go back and forth through genres as you explored album after album trying to create the perfect mix.
On my mixes you might find Rickie Lee Jones or Patsy Cline next to The Clash, Talking Heads behind Television, or The Who followed by (Winnipeg bands) the Mongrels, Les Pucks, Harlequin, or Popular Mechanix. The Doors might play before or after Pearl Harbor & The Explosions, The Police, or Bruce Cockburn. It was what you did to fill the time you loved with what you loved.
You could do that with a mix tape; create a world you wanted to listen to past the then-boring radio of Brandon, and outside the reach of Winnipeg’s CITI FM.
In creating the playlist, you created the tempo, and I have made hundreds of tapes for myself and friends; music to drive to, music for running, music for sleeping, being, or dancing.
Mixtapes provided something more than music, they offered a feeling you just can’t get from a streaming service or computer-generated playlist based on past listens and likes.
A mixtape was organic, and now it is nostalgic.