Tape Magnetism

Cassette tape offers a fantasy of freedom from the pitfalls of newer media

“Hi. I got a tape I want to play,” announces David Byrne at the start of Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film. He has sauntered onstage alone with a boombox and an acoustic guitar, and after he presses play we recognize a synthesized version of the bassline for “Psycho Killer.” As Byrne begins to sing and strum, the presence of the tape insists that we attend to the sonic interaction between man and machine, and it rewards that aural attention when we soon hear what seems like the device malfunctioning. Byrne staggers around, kinesthetically mimicking the skipping sounds. Yet the sounds are not coming from the tape itself — rather, from a Roland TR-808 drum machine run through the soundboard. The deceptive boombox signals that what has just begun is adamantly not a recording. Byrne acknowledges what his audience already knows: tape technology allowed for listening that was mobile, controllable, repeatable, and, if so desired, private — everything that the concert was not.

Recent years have seen a resurgent interest in the cassette tape. Sales have increased significantly, and the idea of tape has featured prominently as a narrative device in recent films and TV shows. Just as Byrne turned to tape to highlight the event of the concert, the current return of the cassette sheds light on what users find lacking in other technologies. In the past, tape has been tied to the freedom to perform a number of operations as both producer and consumer. While magnetic tape allowed musicians and others to experiment with the possibility of multi-track recording and overdubbing, the cassette provides the average user with the ability to copy albums and even make mixtapes. It offers both engagement and finitude.

When “tape” is invoked now, it signifies something adapted from what it meant at the crest of its popularity — a more intimate, direct experience of listening, supposedly in contrast to digital media. Streaming services foster a hyper-mediated relationship between listener and material, which the service rations at the expense of the user’s personal data. The cassette, on the other hand — tactile, requiring manual operation — represents a more reciprocal power dynamic: it yields to a listener’s demands and allows them to customize their experience without third-party direction. There are fewer ambient demands on one’s attention, and there is the feeling of a one-on-one connection with the playback. Where streaming promises the freedom to hear anything at any time, tape is seen to offer something even more valuable: freedom from.

The cassette tape’s popularity peaked in the years from 1983 to 1992. But although cassette sales reached a historic low point in 2009, nearly 129,000 tapes were sold in 2016 — 50,000 more than the year before. As reported earlier this year, National Audio Co., one of the few remaining U.S. companies with a stock of cassette tape, has little more than a year’s supply left. For the first time in decades, though, audio tape production in the U.S. will begin again in their facilities, with four miles produced per minute by January.

Cassette tapes offer engagement and finitude

Why buy tape now? One simple explanation, which some have found convincing and others ridiculous, is nostalgia: Listeners long not only for a medium they were once familiar with, but for the devices that delivered their earliest musical experiences. But part of what makes tape unique is that it imposes limitations, even more so than vinyl. Although you can fast-forward, rewind, and even erase a tape, you can never skip to a song as easily as you could on an LP. This difficulty can make tapes seem more interactive; those operations of fast-forwarding and rewinding change the experience of listening. Fragments of a one song might introduce another, or else the searched-for song ends up acquiring an overture. Today, the tactility and audibility of a tape machine — and perhaps the worn-down bits of your copy of the tape — yield an experience far less standardized than the playback of a digital file designed to move effortlessly across a range of devices. By making playback both more physical and more visible, tape also makes it more personal.

What cassette tapes lack in efficiency they make up for in engagement — at the time of their introduction, they represented an unprecedented interactivity between the medium and the user. One element of tape’s appeal was the ability to cheaply and easily purchase blank cassettes, which allowed you to copy a favorite album, record tracks off the radio, compile mixtapes, and record yourself. These cassettes gave new power to consumers (and a new cause for concern to record companies intent on protecting their copyright — in 1981, the British Phonographic Industry launched the “home taping is killing music” campaign.) Consumers could practice a kind of listening that incorporated the possibility of what they might create from what they heard. With the advent of tape, in other words, consumption opened up new circuits of production.

Even today, music buyers tend to gravitate toward physical objects over digital files, and since vinyl is more expensive, listeners can be more easily convinced to buy cassettes. Cassette tapes give a sense that the music is one’s own, but their appeal doesn’t stop at the object: The ability to not only touch and display the tape, but also manually direct its playback, is a fantasy of engagement — and control — at a time when the media we consume seems increasingly rationed and monitored.

To modern consumers, it might seem that tape fosters a deeper attention to sound, encouraging the listener to listen better, more deeply. This idea inspired films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, from 1974, and 1981’s Blow Out, directed by Brian De Palma. In the Coppola film, tape is inseparable from questions of surveillance and the revelations that result from such attention; in De Palma’s, a sound effects engineer realizes that his accidental recording of a car crash might hold the key to unraveling a conspiracy. Newer films and TV shows have employed tape as a conceit — a retro solution to ostensibly modern problems. It is significant that two of the most prominent shows — Mindhunter and 13 Reasons Why — are Netflix series, available to stream. Both thematize the importance of attention and subtly posit digital media as a threat.

Consumers could practice a kind of listening that incorporated the possibility of what they might create from what they heard

Mindhunter is a drama series that follows how the FBI began profiling serial killers in the late 1970s thanks to a new willingness to listen to convicted criminals explain themselves. Simple as it might sound, the innovation at the heart of the show is merely visiting convicted criminals to hear them narrate the crimes in their own words so that those explanations of past behavior can help the bureau understand suspects in unsolved cases. The first season repeatedly shows special agent Holden Ford and his partner, Bill Tench, listening to criminals in a dynamic that’s less law enforcement and criminal than psychologist and subject. A tape recorder listens alongside them during these conversations: first a bulky reel-to-reel model, then eventually a smaller Sony TC-D5m machine that uses cassettes. This progression, tracing how tape technology became more portable, reflects the characters’ progressions to more agile and attentive listeners.

Rather than leaving listening to the machine, Ford and Tench use the recorder to train themselves, making notes in a concerted effort to capture everything the cassette does. They also learn to listen collaboratively. On one occasion, their partner Wendy Carr demonstrates that something as seemingly insignificant as the use of a verb in the present tense can yield clues. Simple speech, if one takes the time to listen to it, becomes as effective as other methods of gathering evidence. Another key feature is the ability to erase, which Ford and Tench make use of for one particularly sensitive interview. Tape’s precariousness arguably strengthens the listener’s attention. It also suggests an ambivalent relationship to truth: tape is seen as more “neutral,” less vulnerable to manipulation, while also more easily destroyed. There’s an equation of tape’s mere existence with justice. Earlier this year, after Trump tweeted that James Comey “better hope there are no ‘tapes’” of their conversations, Comey responded by saying, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” Both men were certain that tape would bear out their version of the story.

Tape has a lifespan; it has vulnerabilities; it may be missed, which can make the playback feel more “human.” And it allows for monologue, with fewer ambient bids on the listener’s attention and the relative difficulty of skipping ahead or away. In 13 Reasons Why, tape is presented an antidote to supposedly more impersonal, callous forms of digital communication. The show follows Hannah, a high school student who dies by suicide and leaves behind not a note but a box of seven cassettes — with just 13 recorded sides, hence the title — that single out those whose actions led her to take her own life. It’s based on a 2007 novel by Jay Asher, who claimed that the idea came to him while using an audio guide when visiting a King Tutankhamen exhibit.

Whereas streaming raises the possibility that your plays will be turned into data, with tape, your listening is inscribed onto the cassette itself

Hannah had been a victim of bullying conducted via phone, and the tapes are meant to provide a contrast between the supposedly cruel immediacy of the digital and the haunting intimacy of the analog. Unlike the photos and text messages that circulate almost instantly on classmates’ phones, the tapes take a long time to make their way through the designated listeners. Curiously, although her friend Tony ensures the tapes reach the intended recipients in the proper order, in the last episode he brings Hannah’s parents a USB drive with digital files of what the tapes contained. The shift from a more fragile, “intimate” medium to a hardier but less tactile one represents a move away from listening to the tapes as an exercise in empathy and toward their possible use in a lawsuit against the school district, which the parents believe was negligent in addressing the bullying Hannah faced. The new format, in other words, reflects that there are new listeners, ones who were not intended to participate in the analog exchange between the voice of a dead girl and the ears of the people she blames for her death.

The title sequence for 13 Reasons Why — and for Mindhunter — features tape prominently, yet each episode is accompanied by a characteristically digital feature: a small “skip intro” button. Whereas a digital streaming service raises the possibility that both your skips and plays will be turned into data — that you are being listened in on — with tape, your listening is inscribed onto the cassette itself. Playing a tape begins to wear it down gradually, creating a bond between listener and technology. That finiteness and fragility, which we can observe as the reels slowly unspool, captures some of tape’s appeal in the digital era: an increased intimacy, one whose intensity is amplified by its very precarity. The return of tape is a turn to its limitations — a freedom to pursue freedom from.

This distinction between two freedoms was famously made by Erich Fromm, the German social psychologist whose popular works often made it onto cassette, and who occasionally caught the attention of the FBI because of his involvement with the counterculture. Rather than privileging one over the other, he insisted on a long history of their intertwinement, pointing out how too much emphasis on freedom from risks weakening social ties and increasing a sense of isolation. He further underscored the importance of acknowledging both freedoms in The Art of Listening, which was partially based on the transcript of a recorded seminar he gave in 1974. Although here Fromm explains that the “basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener”— freedom from distraction — he emphasized that the freedom or ability to empathize was just as crucial.

Listening is not always best considered an on-demand experience. If cassettes were once touted for their convenience, they now present an opportunity through their difficulty, poised for the moment when the tape might tangle or snap.

Sam Carter is a writer and an editor at Asymptote.