80,404 cassette tapes were bought in the UK last year last year, the highest annual figure since 2004. That seems quite a lot for a medium which has, by all accounts, long outlived its usefulness. Cars with inbuilt cassette decks are now only to be found in the ranks of vintage vehicles, and you need to find a yard selling house-clearance items to find a machine on which you can play cassettes at home. By common consensus, the cassette tape was, for all its once ubiquitous convincing, a pretty dreadful means of listening to music. It was impossible to access individual tracks, the sound was masked by a loud and persistent hiss (a kind of mechanical tinnitus) and after a few playings, the tape invariably got stuck in the machine and had to be pulled out by hand, which unravelled the tape from the spool on to which it was physically impossible to rewind it, and knots of cassette tape became a standard feature of hedgerows where they were thrown, in desperation, from car windows. I remember just one such occasion being a core part of the storyline to an Inspector Morse episode in the 1980s.
The British Phonographic Industry (they were the people who came up with the 80,404 figure), point out that cassettes still only accounted for 0.1% “of all music consumed in 2019” (presumably that excludes broadcast and live performances), and that it paled into insignificance compared with 4.3 million vinyl LPs and 23.5 million CDs.
What intrigues me is why people would buy cassettes. The BPI has its own thoughts on the matter; “Experts put the revival down to a combination of people who bought them in their youth, and a novelty for younger music fans”. But I have a different view, and one which was prompted by a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last evening called “New Weird Britain”. In it John Doran searched out the underground, experimental music scene in the UK. And weird it most certainly is. Here are just a few observations from a concert Doran attended while recording the programme: “A man with a mouthguard in a balaclava dribbles into a bag of shopping”, “A film showing bright pink bottoms sitting on Victoria sponge cakes is projected”, “I don’t want to look pretty when I perform, I want to look a bit weird and ugly, like a yellow custard alien”. While this is unashamedly (and, it has to be said, purposefully) weird, it masks a very serious issue, which Doran explains at the very start; “There’s a new wave of musicians who don’t care about the 80s or 90s…because they are making something completely new out of the remnants”. In other words, this is not nostalgia, but a genuine attempt to move on from the past. And, for all my classical inclinations, I found far more to enjoy in the music I heard in this programme than in any of the commercialised pop of our time or the sterile experiments in unattractive sound by academic-based composers keen to show off their ability to confuse and obfuscate.
But where do cassette tapes fit into all this?
Towards the end of the programme, Doran interviewed a young man who had set up a recording studio called the Greater Lanarkshire Research Council (GLARC) which offered free recording facilities to experimental music groups and released the recordings as cassettes. As he explained, “it is economically a very sound choice. They are extremely cheap to produce. We looked into doing vinyl but you usually have to do a run of 300 or 400, and it costs around ₤1500, whereas with tapes you’re looking at ₤1 per tape”. Simple economics have led to the cassette becoming an iconic symbol of experimental music and, as the man from GLARC put it, “you can be more experimental with a tape”. On top of that, because of their cheapness, you can play around with their physical appearance without worrying too much about any detrimental effect it might have on the sound. The cassette, in effect, becomes a physical more than an aural representation of the performance; as Doran put it, “Selling cassettes after a gig is like a Masonic handshake”.
This ability to convey a genre which clearly goes beyond sound seems to me to be at least a significant driver of the increase in cassette tape sales rather than any desire for nostalgia or novelty. And perhaps we are now coming to an age where the medium of carriage for music is dependent on the musical genre. If the cassette has become the medium which defines experimental music, and vinyl that which defies rock music, perhaps the time has come for the classical world to claim back ownership of the CD. One thing every performer has in common is a desire to get their music out into the world and, to do that, while you can certainly use online streaming and downloads, there is also the desire – in fact the need – to have some physical manifestation of one’s existence. As I have frequently reminded students, about to embark on their careers and solo performers, giving an audience a link to a YouTube video has none of the long-lasting benefits of selling them a CD. What the CD brings to classical music which makes it the ideal carrier, is its highly detailed sound, shorn of the atmospherics inbuilt to vinyl and cassette, and the provision of a booklet which, at some length, can introduce the performer, the instrument and the music. We could be learning from the experimental music people, and making the CD our own, unique medium and not dismissing it as cumbersome, outdated technology.