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The case for cassettes

How the mixtape stumbled upon our need for connection
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I started collecting cassettes purely out of necessity: my friend’s car only had a tape deck. On the 30-minute drive to judo practice, we had a shoddy setup where one of us would wedge their phone into a cupholder and then play music through it — but at some point, that just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

At the time, I owned one cassette tape. I had bought it at the merch table at a small concert where one of my favourite indie bands was playing. I didn’t have a cassette player, and I had all of their music saved on Spotify, but I wanted to support them anyway. The next time we headed to judo practice, I brought the tape with me and slotted it into the tape deck. Music played through the car’s speakers. 

Even though it was the most mundane thing in the world, the two of us still stopped for a second, in awe that a plastic cartridge with magnetic tape wound into it was now making sounds. After my friend dropped me off that night, I got a text that read, “Bring a tape next week!”

Despite being an obsolete audio format, cassettes have stubbornly remained part of our popular culture. But we often forget that the development of the cassette and the portable cassette player represented the first opportunity for people to listen to the music of their choice while on the go. 

This format created a period of time where music felt truly personal to the listener. Anyone who owned a Walkman had their own window into appreciating music, and the production of mixtapes further personalized the listening experience. 

And the making of mixtapes didn’t die with the cassette. We still strive for the deeply personal connection that hand-picked tracks bring — whether they’ve been curated for a friend or a partner, or they’re a collection of songs to kickstart a productive study session. While writing this piece, I spoke with two U of T students about their thoughts on the peculiar phenomenon of the audio cassette. These conversations, combined with my personal experiences, reveal how music helps say things when our words fail us. 

A special medium

The cassette tape is made up of a few distinct components. An audio cassette is a flat container, usually made from plastic, that contains a magnetic tape wound into two reels. When inserted into a player, the magnetic tape winds from one reel to the other. 

As the tape moves, the playback mechanism produces sound. When the tape finishes winding from one reel to the other, the cassette needs to be taken out and flipped over so the music on the other side of the magnetic tape can play. 

If one wants to play an album from the beginning, the tape needs to be rewound. People usually do this by sticking a pencil or a Bic pen in one of the grooves in the holes and then turning it.

Playing a cassette tape may sound straightforward, but one often forgets how much we take the ease of music streaming services for granted. Because a cassette tape creates analog sound — meaning that the sound is produced directly from the magnetic tape when played — it requires a mechanical system to work. This means that there are a lot of areas to troubleshoot when something goes wrong — and things always go wrong.

“You wouldn’t know which of the potential [issues] was happening to it,” explained Trevor Bell, a third-year U of T student who grew up with cassettes. Problems with your tape might  range from merely needing to replace the two AA batteries that powered the Walkman to needing to stop the player because your tape was being eaten. 

“A tape player eating your tape was a common thing,” he said. Longer cassette tapes were thinner, making them more likely to get caught in the tape machine heads meant to read their audio. That would garble the tape. “If the machine is eating your tape, you want to stop that as [quickly] as possible, because it can wreck it,” said Bell.

Still, there’s a particular value to listening to music on a cassette. While a vinyl sleeve can be showcased on a shelf and a vinyl is played aloud on a turntable, the cassette is a quieter, hidden experience that easily rests in the palm of your hand. As Bell put it, “You can hide a cassette a lot easier than you can hide a vinyl, which makes it feel more personal.” 

Meanwhile, the art on the J-Card — the piece of paper covering the plastic window of a cassette cartridge — can be very elaborate. On the surface, it looks like it merely functions to help people identify what album they’re listening to, but it often unfurls to display art up to four or five times its original length. In Bell’s words, “There was an unfolding of the artwork.” 

This unfolding didn’t just pertain to the artwork on the J-card, but to “the music and the presentation” as well, Bell pointed out. On the J-Card on my tape of R.E.M’s Automatic for the People, the band members are depicted standing moodily in black and white. The J-Card on my Backstreet Boys tape unfolds to show the band members in egregious ’90s hairstyles and outfits, striking boy band poses. The metaphor of not judging a book by its cover — or in this case, a cassette by its J-Card — was thus packed into a small plastic container. 

You can display vinyl; the large area for album art on a vinyl sleeve can almost double as home décor. You can’t display a J-Card. The art on those extra lengths of paper exists solely for the person who’s listening to the tape. 

Following the invention of the audio cassette, the Sony Walkman personal cassette player was developed in 1979. Although it’s now known by most as the key music-playing device on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the Sony Walkman revolutionized the way we consume music. 

Before that, listening to music in public was a strictly communal activity. The Walkman was the first device to make the listening experience private. 

At first, this was a widely ridiculed invention. People didn’t see the need for someone to listen to music in private while outside their homes — but 30 years after its release, the Walkman had sold a cumulative 200 million units.

The art of the mixtape

If half the time we spend listening to cassettes consists of either rewinding tapes or troubleshooting, then why should we even bother? But then again, is listening to music really just about listening to an audio file on your computer, or does the extra effort add something to the listening experience? 

Consider the mixtape, a concept that people often link with cassettes. To me, a mixtape holds vastly more emotional weight than a playlist — something that is already considered very personal — because it takes a significantly larger amount of effort to make one. 

Many cassette players have two tape decks. Recording a mixtape involves playing a song on one deck and recording on the other. When you get to the end of the song, you stop both decks, pop out the song you just recorded, put in the next song that you want to record, then hit record again — rinse and repeat. 

Regardless of intent, all the decisions that go into creating a mixtape, from the duration of the blank tape you want to record on to what to write on the J-card, take meticulous thought and planning. This is why, as Bell explained, making a mixtape also generates a feeling of attachment.

More importantly, in contrast to making a playlist, making a mixtape creates a final product that feels more personal. To me, mixtapes are more like art projects than mere vessels to functionally compile a list of songs.

For Bell, there are two types of mixtapes: “One is the one that you make for yourself, and the other is something that you make for someone else.” Whether you create them to gather someone’s favourite songs, to send to someone you love, or even to send to someone you have broken up with, mixtapes all carry individual artistic intent. Technically, the progression of an entire relationship — from the pining to the breakup — can be documented through mixtapes.

The artistry of the mixtape reveals itself more when one makes a mix in a romantic context, because, according to Bell, that involves “sequencing songs in a way that is intended to show your emotions for that person.” For him, the sequencing of songs could mean something as simple as “ ‘oh, here’s 12 love songs… and I think of love when I think of you,’ or it could be ‘here are 12 songs that tell a story about us together.’ ” 

Bell explained that when a relationship comes to an end, it creates almost a metaphorical significance behind a Walkman that’s low on batteries. “When batteries would die, typically something would slow down, would get warped, would become distorted in a disorienting way… That can certainly be tied metaphorically to a warping, a slowing down, a distortion that is occurring in the relationship between the two people who are on either ends of the giving and receiving of the mixtape.”

The legacy of the mixtape

The popularization of mixtapes demonstrated how integral music is to how we communicate with each other, and today, we still strive for the same personal touch that mixtapes offer. A change in format doesn’t detract from the connecting power that music itself has. 

Caroline Vieira, a second-year U of T student, says that playlists are integral to her life and her relationships. While my Spotify playlists are a chaotic mishmash of music that I listen to, hers are meticulously curated, down to the colour-coordinated pictures she assigns as her playlist icons. 

Vieira grew up in a household where it wasn’t common to express emotions through words, so music was an unspoken way for her family to show affection. “It’s just a way of expressing stuff that’s not as easy to say,” she said. 

Our conversation also highlighted the ways that music helps us document our lives. Mixtapes — and later, playlists — became a way for us to encapsulate emotions and memories connected to a particular moment in time. That can lend certain songs an emotional charge. 

“When I make a playlist in a particularly tough time in my life, I’ll listen to it for however long I need to get through what I’m going through,” Vieira said. “Then it sits on my playlist on Spotify, and then I delete it eventually… I don’t want to feel how I did when I listened to those [songs].”

To her parents, who live in Buffalo, New York, Vieira’s playlists serve as a small piece of her to cherish while she’s away at university. “I feel like providing [my mom] with music that makes her think of me might make it a little bit easier for me to be gone,” she said.

She also noted that she has broadened her mother’s music horizons through playlist sharing. After gauging how much her mother bobs her head to any given song when Vieira has the aux cord in the car, she adds the best songs to an ever growing road trip playlist. The playlist has an array of genres, ranging from K-pop groups like Super Junior and SHINee — which, thanks to Vieira, are two of her mother’s favourite K-pop groups — to Broadway showtunes.

Interestingly, when Vieira talks about creating a playlist, she mentions many of the characteristics that I like about mixtapes. The phenomenon of knowing someone well enough to compile a list of handpicked songs for them — or wanting to capture a feeling or a memory enough to make a mix — hasn’t changed. Even something as mundane as a commute can be put to a soundtrack. 

Still, there was something really special about the cassette that we tapped into — to me, cassettes offer the perfect combination of convenience and emotional weight. 

It’s been six months since my friend and I played the one cassette I owned in his car. Since then, my bookshelf has seen my small stack of tapes slowly grow. They consist of a mix of artists my parents listen to and with a few unsigned local indie acts. More recently, I bought a used Walkman. Looking for tapes gave me an opportunity to get familiar with record stores around Toronto — and I got hooked on that pretty fast. 

I’ve discovered that there’s a rush to discovering music on my own accord, and cassette tapes have become something that helped me connect with people. I would call my dad and talk about my new finds and listen to his stories about cassettes while I rewound tapes with a Bic pen. The satisfying click of inserting a tape into a cassette player — the soft, mechanical whirring of the Walkman and the slightly wobbly sound caused by the natural wear on the tape — almost makes the music sound sweeter.

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