When cassette tapes ruled the world.
High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape, by Marc Masters, University of North Carolina Press, 209 pages, $20
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High Bias, by music journalist Marc Masters, explores the history of the cassette tape and how it revolutionized modern music. (The title—for those who weren’t alive in the 1980s—is a reference to the better quality “high bias” cassettes, such as chromium oxide tapes, that were favored for reducing hiss and distortion.) CDs, MP3s, and streaming music have long since supplanted the dominance of the cassette, but the humble plastic rectangle retains an ardent fan base drawn to its analog charm and DIY appeal.
The book traces a fast-paced history of the cassette over a rather slim two-hundred-odd pages. Masters’s passion is evident throughout. “The cassette tape is an audio medium that everyone can access and control and modify and remake and destroy and resurrect,” he writes in the introduction. “It’s an audio medium that was actually made for everyone. That’s pretty revolutionary.” His love for cassettes was born in college, he recounts, when a friend passed him a mixtape with the unforgettable title Toxic Tunes. It was crammed with songs by “weird punk bands I had read about in high school but never actually heard.”
Masters’s enthusiasm is infectious, and reading the book brought me back to the 1990s, when I was a college-radio DJ in the Boston area. I could practically smell the musty aisles of the radio station and hear the clacking sounds of tapes hitting each other in bins. Masters peppers his prose with references to musicians familiar to anyone who grew up in that 1980s and 1990s American indie-rock milieu, such as Ian Mackaye of Fugazi and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The book is full of nostalgia for this period in time.
The cassette tape, as Masters explains, was developed by the Dutch company Philips and made its debut in 1963. Magnetic tape machines had been invented in the 1920s. Reel-to-reel tape recorders became prevalent in the 1950s, but they were expensive and cumbersome. Operating a reel-to-reel required some technical know-how, and the fiddly process of threading and properly winding the tape through the machine could be annoying and time-consuming. In the early 1960s, the engineer Lou Ottens led a team at Philips that developed the modern cassette tape, which neatly encased the key elements of a reel-to-reel in a plastic case that could fit in your hand. Now, anyone could easily play and transport music. While the audio quality wasn’t as precise as the larger tape machines, cassettes sounded good enough for the average consumer, and were available at a fraction of the cost.
To Philips’s credit, they allowed other businesses to use their innovation without licensing the technology. Many international companies began making cassettes, and the medium surged in popularity in the 1970s and especially the 1980s, when it became the main format for portable audio, vastly exceeding the 8-track. The Sony Walkman, introduced in 1979, became one of the most iconic consumer electronic devices of the twentieth century; the compact design inspired Steve Jobs and Apple’s later invention of the iPod in 2001. The Walkman shifted how we listen to music, integrating it more fully into everyday life. Cassettes and the Walkman also made music more affordable, reducing the need for heavy and costly stereos and record players. Cassettes allowed for easy sharing and played a major role in the swell of underground music scenes and participatory fandom for bands such as the Grateful Dead. The ability to dub cassettes at home democratized recording and distribution, terrifying the mainstream music industry.
Masters’s narrative falters, though, when he explores the development of hip-hop in the 1980s and how mixtapes helped to catalyze the rise of the genre. While his account is technically adept, he relies too heavily on secondary sources, quoting from old documentaries or articles when getting fresh quotes would make the writing more exciting and vital. Many of the icons of hip-hop are still alive—why not get some new thoughts from, say, Grandmaster Flash, instead of using something that was said before? Another advantage of garnering novel commentary is that the passage of time allows for trenchant insights. We can look back now at all the history—the hip-hop genre recently turned fifty years old—and have a different perspective than we did when the technology was at its peak.
In another chapter, Masters addresses the circulation of cassettes around the world: abroad, in countries like India, the cassette was introduced in the late 1970s and became ubiquitous in the 1980s, since it was cheaper and more accessible than vinyl records. But the research here also feels disappointingly brief, relying mainly on quotes from collectors of world-music cassettes from the Western world rather than interviewing the original creators of the music in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.
Those cassettes of rare and wonderful music are getting harder to find. As the 1990s dawned, tapes began to face stiff competition from emerging formats. The CD gained market share for its crystal-clear audio quality, becoming the preeminent medium for music. Then MP3s and streaming upended CDs, and the convenience of digital music left analog technology in the dust. By the 2000s, cassettes seemed to be a distant memory, confined to dusty corners of thrift stores. But indie musicians and collectors are among those who have kept the DIY ethos and nostalgia of the cassette alive. Today, some independent labels specialize in cassette-only releases. The cool ’80s aesthetic of early cassette decks, boom boxes, and Walkmans are appreciated by legions of younger fans, many of whom are too young to remember their original heyday.
Cassettes are no longer the dominant medium, but High Bias reminds us of their cultural currency, and the lasting power of analog media and its myriad emotional connections. However, the story it tells is unfinished. How does the streaming music era compare to earlier formats? Are there parallels between a Spotify playlist and the mixtapes of the past? The book is a smart and entertaining romp through the last several decades of music, but it often goes too quickly when it should go deep, fast-forwarding when it would be better to rewind.
Geeta Dayal is an arts critic and journalist specializing in twentieth-century music, culture, and technology. She has written extensively for frieze and many other publications, including the Guardian, Wired, the Wire, Bookforum, Slate, the Boston Globe, and Rolling Stone. She is the author of Another Green World (Bloomsbury, 2009), a book on Brian Eno, and is currently at work on a new book on music.