By Vincent Michael Festa
At the end of every season I make a mixtape on cassette consisting of my favorite songs at the time. It’s an audio diary of sorts: I take 120 minutes of music and chronicle three months of my life. These songs that I put on tape help me remember stand-out people, places, events, habits, and experiences in my life. I’ve been doing this since middle school and haven’t stopped since. It’s the soundtrack of my life recorded in about 65 volumes at 120 minutes each equaling about 130 hours, with songs taken from many years of collecting and making hundreds of cassette tapes and CD-R’s.
I do this because it keeps me alive. They also keep my mind swirling, not dead -sounding like a constant, continuous pitch like an old test of the emergency broadcast system. After the fact, it’s a mental exercise where not only are my memories in constant check, but it also keeps my imagination going. I always have been the center of attention. I’ve met and associated with all sorts of people in my life, and for me to still have a good conversation with someone, these cassettes help me remember instances and reference points that keep that constant going.
Me and my cassettes have been through a lot together. We’ve gone through make-ups, break-ups, and five different schools. They have kept me company while walking through the neighborhood to and from Brentwood High. We went on car rides, ferry rides, and bus trips to Rochester, Staten Island, Atlantic City, rival schools and sports games together. We’ve taken car rides and ferries to Staten Island and Atlantic City. Sometimes my cassettes needed fixing, so I had to unscrew the casing and reset the tape back onto the wheel when it wedged itself. I even had to splice them and tape them back together again because I was worried of losing what I had on the tape. I knew that once radio airtime went, that was it.
The stylistics of cassettes are unmatched. The quiet, clandestine nature of tape-trades to friends and seeing their hand-written track-listings made things exciting as sometimes you never knew what you could discover. Once upon a time before MP3’s and file-sharing, friends went to each other for mixes from their favorite artists. Even my friends looked up to me because I was the one who went record-shopping on a very heavy basis and bought the music (remember that?), fixing them up with rare, hard-to-find songs and b-sides of their favorite artists. That was how friendships were forged.
Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, cassette-tape culture was surging and it was the backbone for old-school hip-hop and the first industrial and noise recordings. Artists like the Cold Crush Brothers had their live shows recorded, copied, and circulated for that true-school feel, and even inside some street-corner breakdance boom-boxes in the 80’s. The Club Moral Stock List has documented some of the early days of noise and experimental music. Through the 90’s, underground labels such as DHR released their “Midiwar” tapes full of electronic, techno, and drum ‘n’ bass warfare and artists such as Prurient still release cassette works to this day.
Overnight tapings of WUSB’s diverse programming included and was not limited to techno, rockabilly, industrial, reggae, indie-rock, experimental, and its late-night talk shows. Z100, Hot 97, Q-104 in its alternative days, the “new” KTU in the 90’s, Kiss FM when they were hardcore hip-hop, 107.5 WBLS when they were hip-hop. I can’t begin to tell you how much I recorded some of that that good ol’ radio history I have in possession, some of which were used to make these mix-tapes.
Now, they’re really history.
I just gotten an e-mail from a close colleague of mine containing a story of how cassettes are on the decline. According to an article written by Andrew Adam Newman, only 480,000 tape players were sold in 2007 and 1/5th of that is expected to be sold in 2012. Only 400,000 music cassettes were sold, consisting of only %0.1 of all physical and digital sales combined. Ten years ago, it was 173,000,000.
For a long time, cassettes ran against the CD and were losing steam. They were less accessible (rewinding instead of pushing a button), more fragile, and had lesser sound quality of its shiny counterpart. With vinyl records’ resurgence in cool and the digital MP3’s dominance in simplicity and quality, the cassette tape could finally die down within the next five to ten years commercially. That sucks, really.
There will be no more art in pressing play. The fresh, sugary smell of the cardboard insert upon opening the cellophane when playing the tape for the first time will fade. The density of holding the cassette tape in your hands and the thickness of the reels will no longer be an issue. The sound of fast-forwarding skidding inside the tape deck will actually be considered a real nuisance now. Writing track-listings with red ink and red hearts saying “I love you!” will be thrown in the desk drawer, shoe box, or attic and forgotten about. Hard-shell walkmans with wiry headphone and orange sponge ear set-ups, the image of Grandmaster Flash boom-boxes, and the excitement of tenth-generation Metallica tapes recorded from yr best friend’s garage…gone. All gone.
Lately, I’ve been neglecting my tape player. For some reason I haven’t been recording like I used to. Maybe because I’m busy buying vinyl and spending time with my record player since the crate-digger in me needs original hip-hop samples in order for me to survive. But over the summer I was stuck at home with no car while transitioning jobs and had nothing to do except to go back and listen to my “blanks”. Listening to cassettes I haven’t listened to in years plus discovering a wealth of oddities I never knew I had were a blast. It’s the stuff the 365 Days of Music Project were made of.
So far so good. For as long as I have these tapes, a working deck, and an urge to keep the nostalgic spirit alive, tapeheads like myself will still have a reason to listen to cassettes. Screw CD’s and MP3’s: they’re a disposable parody of consumerism and mass-production. Cassettes are more hip than anything right now.