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Home taping didn’t kill the music industry, but it did change it forever

- September 17th, 2013

The cassette tape was introduced to the music-buying public 50 years ago last week.

With one possible exception — its technological cousin, the eight track — it has gone down in history as the most inconvenient and unreliable music format ever offered.

Yet without cassettes, we wouldn’t have the music industry as we know it today.

Its impact has outlived the format itself, changing how we all listen to our favourite tunes.

Tapes gave us three very important concepts: that albums should be cheap (if not free), songs should be arranged in an order pleasing to the individual listener, and the entire experience of listening to your music should be portable.

These are the bedrock ideas upon which modern music culture, with its downloads and iPods, is founded.

Born in the 1960s, I grew up with tapes in the 1970s and 1980s. They were considered the inferior alternative to vinyl; it was generally accepted that the sound quality of both prerecorded and homemade tapes wasn’t as clear as LPs — tapes had hiss, static, pops.

The advantage was that, among your group of friends, only one person needed to buy any given album. All you had to do was find a blank tape, which could be had for a couple bucks. In this way, I amassed a collection of hundreds of albums without making much of an investment.

It’s true the process cost me a lot of time. I spent countless hours with friends — like my buddy Biggs, who had the entire Police discography — listening to albums as we taped them.

You had to have nimble fingers to set the needle down on the platter and then quickly flip the pause button off so recording could begin. And if the stylus jumped . . . well, let’s just say that each album I have on tape has its own sonic personality.

And I wasn’t the only one.

There was an entire generation like me — we came of age with the feeling that we had a right to dirt-cheap music. Today’s free-music pirates picked up where we left off.

Did we know taping was wrong? Yes, but we just laughed off the small skull-and-crossbones symbol that accompanied the warning, “Home taping is killing music” on prerecorded tapes. For those few who still purchase compact discs, the FBI symbol sometimes included in liner notes is an extension of that stern threat — and likely just as effectivce

More than once my friends and I remarked on the essential hypocrisy: If they don’t want us to tape albums, how come electronics companies sell blank tapes that are the same length as most LPs? Very convenient.

(I’d also argue that in the long run, tapes helped a lot of musicians prolong their careers by creating an audience for live shows; taping was also a way you could “sample” a group’s music before you graduated to buying their recordings as a true fan.)

Cassettes were responsible for another revolution.

Before tapes arrived on the scene, music enthusiasts were forced to listen to album tracks in the order in which they appeared on an LP, barring lifting and setting the needle down multiple times, which could damage both the record and the needle.

With some forethought and dexterity, a tape could theoretically contain songs from any artist in any order, recorded via stereo or off the radio. The mixtape — the personal playlist of its day — was born. No longer were we married to A-sides and B-sides.

Smarter writers than me have waxed nostalgic about the romance of the mixtape, of how so much thought went into crafting each mini-collection of tunes. What tapes did was make us our own program directors. Mixtapes even became a way to woo members of the opposite sex, I admit I tried doing so many times in high school.

Seen in retrospect, tapes were a bridge of sorts — between the rigid ordering of albums and the playlists of the modern era.

And with the arrival of the boom box and the Walkman, we were freed, no longer chained to our home stereos. True, there had been hand-held transistor radios before that point, but portable tape decks meant we could listen to our own music whenever and wherever we chose.

That was the beginning of a musical democratization that continues to this day.

All of these innovations set the stage for today’s digital-music culture. But don’t go thinking I am in any way trying to excuse the many flaws of cassettes.

One had to be careful to twist off the plastic corner tabs of blank tapes so beloved tunes wouldn’t be erased accidentally. What a pain.

And I remember clearly walking at the side of the road in my hometown of Poplar Hill and finding more than one unspooled tape, a mass of unruly brown strands, presumably tossed to the shoulder by an angry driver.

Then there was the time I bought a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska that sounded distorted and odd; when I returned it to the store, the guy at the counter explained that every so often, record companies would mess a cassette up by putting the tape on the little plastic wheels in reverse.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about the so-called vinyl resurgence.

A new generation is discovering the pleasures of LPs, records, sides, platters — whatever you choose to call them. There will never be a similar cassette resurgence, the technology is too primitive, but we don’t really need one, since tapes created the unspoken expectations all music fans carry in their souls and hearts in 2013.

The cassette introduced a new way of thinking about music, one we all take for granted, and that is its ultimate victory.

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