At the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Cyndi Lauper hit Time After Time plays on a boom box. The installation is called Mixtapes, part of the multimedia I Am Here exhibit that looks at music and home movies as vehicles for personal reflection. “I’ve got a suitcase of memories,” Lauper sings, “that I almost left behind.”
The Mixtapes component of the AGO exhibit is the creation of Glynnis Grant-Henderson, a Toronto music enthusiast who contributed a dozen tapes of danceable music – from ragtime hero Scott Joplin to Wild Thing garage rockers the Troggs to rapper Doja Cat. There’s also a collection of cassettes and journal entries that document her 2018 road trip to small record stores across Canada.
Do you remember cassette tapes? In 1983, the year Time After Time was released, cassettes overtook vinyl as the most popular music format, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Handier and more portable than vinyl, tapes could be played while driving or, with a Sony Walkman, walking. Also, people could easily record music on cassettes themselves. By the end of the decade, global annual sales hit 83 million.
Then, thanks to the advent of the compact disc (and, later, digital downloads and streaming services), cassettes hit a long streak of decline that led to their irrelevance as a music delivery system.
Until now. Though the overall numbers are quite low compared with their 1989 peak, sales of music cassettes in the United States have seen double-digit increases in recent years. Things are no different in Britain, where sales doubled from 2019 to 2020, according to British Phonographic Industry figures.
So the hipsters have a new niche musical toy. But why is the rewind button being pressed now?
To explain the cassette renaissance, it is tempting to turn to some of the same factors driving the current resurgence in vinyl sales: consumers seeking a tactile relationship with their music; a preference for analogue over digital; the sway of nostalgia. But the sonic quality of cassettes, with their tape hiss, is inferior to that of vinyl. The artwork is on a much smaller scale. And just try to find high-end equipment to play the things these days.
“None of our current vendors carry cassette decks any more,” said Danu Mandlsohn, manager of the premium Toronto audio store Bay Bloor Radio. “Last time we sold them was in the early 2000s.”
The quick answer as to the cause of the cassette miniboom: Tapes are cheaper.
“We can supply 100 cassettes at $3 to $5 per tape,” said George Frehner, the president and owner of Analogue Media Technologies (a.k.a. Duplication.ca), a Toronto media factory and print shop. “The cost of pressing a vinyl record would start at about $20.”
As a result, Billie Eilish’s latest album, Happier Than Ever, sells for $19 on cassette at Amazon.ca, compared with $39.99 for the vinyl version.
Another factor favouring tapes over records is the turnaround time for manufacturers. Vinyl products typically can take 22 to 25 weeks to ship, according to Frehner, who doesn’t make LPs but does broker deals with pressing plants for his clients. Cassette orders can usually be completed within a month.
The uptick in cassette sales is also due to increased demand from major music labels. Ten years ago, it was underground bands and bedroom musicians who most often issued recordings on tape; nowadays, the superstars are going analogue as well.
“Today we shipped 8,000 cassettes of a Bjork album and 2,000 Mac Miller tapes,” Frehner said. “There’s no sign of this stopping – it’s only getting bigger.”
As for the nostalgia driving the current analogue surge, nowhere is that sentimentalism stronger than when it is attached to the beloved cassette sub-genre, the mixtape. Find an old one in a box and you are immediately transported to a bygone era of your life – probably involving unfortunate hairstyle choices – even before you stick it into a deck and press play.
“The songs are listed in your own handwriting,” Mixtapes creator Grant-Henderson said. “It’s very tangible and it’s definitely a lot more romantic than a Spotify playlist.”
Grant-Henderson, 32, was born as the cassette tape was just beginning its drop in popularity. She remembers making mixtapes with her sisters as a child, running over to the tape deck to hit the record button whenever a great song came on the radio. The cases were decorated with glitter and embellished with nail-polish doodles.
“It’s one of our family’s happiest memories,” she said.
It is not uncommon to hold up pop culture as a mirror to one’s emotional state. Grant-Henderson believes the mixtape is more resonant than making a playlist on a streaming platform because you are actually listening to the song as you put it on tape, rather than dragging and dropping a track across a laptop screen. “You’re physically with it,” the panel text for the AGO exhibit explains. “There’s no way of avoiding the fact that you felt whatever it was you were feeling while listening to that song and hitting record on the cassette deck.”
The Mixtapes project began a few years ago with something Grant-Henderson called The Mixtape Manifesto, a seven-song collection of music by Elton John – Philadelphia Freedom! – and others. An accompanying zine of short stories worked as a form of music therapy for her, while serving as a love letter to the tape format.
Her 2018 odyssey took her to Batchawana Bay, Ont.’s Oosik Records (self-described as the world’s smallest record shop) and beyond to Winnipeg’s Into the Music, Saskatoon’s the Vinyl Exchange, Vancouver’s Neptune Records and Victoria’s Vinyl Envy. A copy of The Mixtape Manifesto was dropped on the counter of each store she visited, free to anyone who wanted it.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.
Driving a beat-up 2002 Honda Civic, she stopped in at 25 shops all told. Some of them have since gone out of business. And six months after the trip, the Civic was totalled in an accident. “It served its purpose,” Grant-Henderson said of the car.
The cassettes? They survived to play another day.
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