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Wheezing Spools: Cassettes in Electronic Music - Part I

Shriveled monoliths outweighed and overshadowed by vinyl

By Conor Walker, 2:00PM, Wed. Jul. 16

Wheezing Spools: Cassettes in Electronic Music - Part I

How does a puny plastic cuboid subject to decay and fluttering live up to a stylus on a bible black plane traveling 45 revolutions per minute? No tape revival or aging critic (ahem) with a cassette label can circumvent a doomed format that whorls and whines in a comic fugue. Yet such invalidities define the format’s unique black sheep standing.

Since the Eighties, when the electronic music industry shifted from LPs to dance-driven singles, the 12-inch vinyl format has dominated. Think Tangerine Dream to New Order. And no wonder; the frequency range remains unrivaled, even amongst today’s uncompressed digital standards.

The 12-inch single bellows fuller bass alongside sparkling highs that settle over a crowd like hoary sea mist. Such a broad frequency range plays out ideal for public consumption. Cassettes, on the other hand, are designed for the loner. They degrade rapidly like the human spirit in exile, which is why in the harrows of the bedroom they’re such a welcome confidant.

The cassette has four primary purposes, all of which rouse intimacy and seclusion: as portable, isolated company in a Walkman; for the almighty mix tape; on road trips against a backdrop of monumental North American scenery; and as a bedroom tool for shut-ins. None of these roles suggest socializing. In contrast, 12-inchers spin as a vehicle for pop culture, echoing from the turntable to flailing crowds.

If the 12-inch can be called populist, the cassette becomes hermetic. Some claim a tape resurgence is underway, yet in comparison to more dominant and robust formats, the cassette remains a shriveled monolith, outweighed and overshadowed by vinyl’s superior analog qualities and the flexibility of the MP3. If the cassette has a claim to fame, it’s inflexibility.

Although bullied by greater vessels, tapes played a pivotal role in proliferating underground dance music and ushering the 12-inch to dominate decades of technoid consumption. While techno, acid house, and rave rippled across an overdriven West, the tracks blared in clubs were difficult to trace. DJs were prone to scratch off a record’s label so plebeians weren’t privy to their secret weapons.

Fans fled from the clubs to their rooms, tuning into pirate radio stations with their fingers on the record/play button, waiting for that label-less banger to spin so they could successfully snag for themselves. Such mix tapes have become archives for regional scenes, which besides the mixes themselves, lived in the moment, devoid of the will to document. Mixes were shared amongst electronic enthusiasts and eventually – with the advent of the Internet – uploaded to forums.

Unknowns were eventually revealed, pushing the tracks into cult classics with sought after reissues. Many artists continue the tradition. Demdike Stare, for instance, self-release C70 tape mixes; as of this year they’ve put out Post Collapse, The Weight of Culture, and Empirical Research.

In addition to the culture of mixes, numerous cassette-only releases continue to circulate, albeit overshadowed by non-tape formats. Next week, in the second half of “Wheezing Spools,” I’ll comb through the tape releases deserving of another whorl.

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