Retro Sound Comes With Populist Noise

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Did Sony Walkmans come in a different models? I only owned one, and it was in the early ’80s, when I was passing time between Paris and Brussels. I particularly remember the then-boring and empty streets of the Belgian capital (nobody in the ’80s talked much about Europe; there was no blue flag with yellow stars yet). The only thing you would have to be careful of was dog poop on the sidewalk – there was plenty of that for a city with so much Art Deco Architecture.

But my music was a blast. Walking around the city and listening to the perfect sound coming out of the cassette player was like taking drugs. For a period of time I was going totally nuts over Randy Newman’s music – his rhythms that were perfectly suitable for walking; his sarcastic lyrics about short people and about Bruce Springsteen as the “Boss.” There was something so optimistic about Randy Newman back then. His lyrics were so urban, and finally, with a Walkman, one could really hear all his words, his poetry.

It was probably around this time – when I constantly listened to my Walkman – that I ruined my hearing, rather than at the rock concerts that I had attended in previous years. But the cassettes that I could play on the Walkman were irresistible perfection for me. I did not think that life could get any better.  

But cassettes did not last very long. The world was still in full swing, and we dropped the old for the new very quickly. In Europe, the mid-’80s were the time of the first computers, though they only served as PlayStations or as slightly improved typewriters. In the late ’80s, we were still buying cassettes, and my first car in Rome had a radio with an incorporated mangianastri, as Italians called cassette players. It was a precious gadget that made your car trips easier. So precious that they often got stolen if you did not take them out of the car or hide them under the seat after parking. Back then, a mangianastri under your arm in Rome was almost like holding a cell phone in your hand in the early 2000s: a status symbol. But to be honest, holding a mangianastri in those days was more necessity than anything else.

But soon enough, the first CD player entered my house, and cassettes got pushed to the backs of bookshelves. Compared to the sleek new CDs, they seemed awkward to use – they broke often. You could not go replay songs so easily. Do you remember the noise of the rewind and fast forward buttons? The imprecision of the counter? We soon stopped buying audio cassettes, and when I got my new car with a CD player installed in the back trunk, I finally stopped using audio cassettes altogether. The industry was going wild, and all the albums that I had first listened to on vinyl – then on cassettes – I was slowly re-buying on CDs.

It was China that made all this possible. CDs were cheap in the People’s Republic, a place that never knew much about vinyl or cassettes. China forged ahead and soon became the primary mass producer of the world’s CDs. Many of them dropped in our pockets through a cheap black market when we lived in China.

I thought that I had arrived at a final curve in audio technology. A few days ago, though, I was planning how to get rid of my numerous CDs and to subscribe to Spotify in order to complete my digital music listening experience that I had already started with my iTunes MP3 collection. It would actually put me in the ideal position to have everything I needed to use for listening, reading or writing into one or two gadgets that were always within arm’s reach. With a click, I can now move from Mozart to Bowie, from WNYC to Feedly, from Twitter to Yonder. It is all there in one spot – in my pocket or on my desk – clean to the perfection, yet always ready for multitasking.  

Were it not for the bar that I occasionally go to, I would never have learned about the jump back to cassettes. I don’t go for their very bad wine, but for the company – people who I can talk with about anything, but who mostly listen to and talk about music. It is a very calm bar, with virtually no artificial light or blaring TVs, but with music playing in the background. It is a long-forgotten place.

Michael Hunt came to town from Milwaukee where, for almost thirty years, he wrote a sports column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper with a good, strong reporting tradition. Michael dropped his anchor at the Columbia School of Journalism, where he wanted to reflect on what to do next, while further exploring journalism. He soon discovered the 1020 Bar as a good place to hang out and talk. This is where he and I met. The other night, Michael explained Allen Iverson’s character to me. In a corner of the room, a discreet, small-screen TV with no sound was showing a documentary on the man – the most prolific shooter in the history of the NBA. Michael, who had followed and reported on the Philadelphia Sixers for a while, knew all sorts of details about Iverson.

After a while, I asked him what he was doing for his MBA thesis at Columbia. I expected something about the militarization of American sports or some such, but instead Michael said, “The comeback of the compact cassettes.”

Later that night, I searched the net. In his piece, “Cassettes are back, as ‘dead’ media stomps the terra again,” Day Hyman writes:

 Two years ago, something unexpected happened: Musical artists and record labels started ramping up their cassette tape requests in a major way. Today National Audio’s business is booming; it’s manufacturing 250 to 350 titles at any given time — a 33 percent increase from 2014 — and working on five to 10 releases a week alone for major record label conglomerate Universal Music Group.

Piggybacking off the recent surge in demand for 12-inch vinyl records, music fans and artists alike are gravitating back to media formats once considered dead, such as cassettes and seven-inch records (commonly known as 45s). To that end, Chicago-based retailers, including Reckless Records and Dusty Groove, have seen noticeable increases in cassette and seven-inch vinyl sales — a trend longtime Reckless manager Melissa Grubbs believes is due to repopularized vinyl LPs increasing in price.

“New records are very expensive now so you can still get something retro and cool in the form of a cassette for, say, $1.99,” she says. Reckless largely stocks cassettes from smaller independent labels, while Dusty Groove owner Rick Wojcik says most of the cassettes sold at his store are vintage, with an emphasis on soul and hip-hop.

Michael, who carries his already-written thesis on his iPhone, must be as prolific a writer as Iverson was a basketball shooter.

He agrees that part of the reason for the comeback of the compact cassettes is the cheaper price, but this is not the main point. It is some sort of generational inclination towards retro, “a reaction against digital technology in our accelerated times. As a statement against the immateriality of Spotify, younger people are embracing the tactile, physical nature of the medium, again making it part of the underground culture,” says Michael.
Michael, like everyone in that corner bar, listens to music a lot. Despite the fact that most of the rebellious cassette listeners – who already number among hundreds of thousands of Americans – are only 20- to 35-years-old, Michael is tempted to follow suit. He remembers the times when he could edit and record his own cassettes and give them away to people he liked. You will end up starting your own recording studio, I told him jokingly, telling him that this cassette news he gave me is further proof that the America is changing by looking back. It seems as if the surge of American populism during this election cycle shows the same need as the reappearance of the old, rumbling cassettes: a need to produce a softer, more human sound.   

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