The idea of the cassette: A gallery with musings

Posted by Rob Walker on March 19, 2010
Posted Under: Music,The Designed Life

[ 3-24-10 Note:Below the jump, there are extensive updates to this post based on comments and other feedback.]

By Kate Bingaman-Burt. Throughout this post, click image for additional details.

In a recent essay for a museum show about music and objects, I made the following rash assertion: “The poor old cassette – cheap, plastic, fragile— enjoys none of the romance associated with vinyl culture.” In retrospect this was a silly thing to say; at the least, I wish I’d said it differently. It’s a different kind of romance, and it certainly isn’t creating anything like the unlikely resurgence in sales of vinyl that’s occurred in the last couple of years. But it was flat wrong of me to imply that nobody cares about the idea of the cassette.

I brooded about this for a few weeks and started collecting links and images relating to the various ways that the idea of the cassette persists. I’ve compiled much of that in this massive post, and welcome your suggestions about examples or useful reading that I’ve missed. Unlike my series of posts on the idea of the book, this will be more of a one-stop approach, like the earlier gallery of default anonymity. That is, I’ll add stuff to this post as I find it, or you tell me about it.

What follows, then, is a bit of a hodgepodge, but I’d really love to hear your thoughts. Do you still have a box of old cassettes somewhere? Do the images here do anything for you? Do you feel any cassette nostalgia?

“All My Tapes, Part 1,” by Bughouse

It so happens that smack in the middle of my brooding and link-collecting, Pitchfork published a huge essay setting out to explain the “underground resurgence” of cassettes, citing “a confluence of cultural trends.”

Instant access to almost any recording has left some of us over-stimulated, endlessly consuming without really digesting what we hear. Many children of the 1980s first owned their music on cassette, so for them the format represents a nostalgia for simpler times; younger kids probably never owned cassettes in the first place, so for them tapes don’t have any negative associations. The spread of Internet-enabled smart phones and 24/7 social networking has made work and pleasure increasingly intertwined in our digital existences. Like records, cassettes offer listeners a tangible experience at a time when our jobs, our social lives, and our popular culture are becoming more and more ephemeral.

Noted in the Pitchfork piece is the British cassette-only label The Tapeworm (“No barcodes,” the label’s site announces almost immediately, and that strikes me as a pretty interesting thing to tout as a selling point) and this roundup of 101 Cassette Labels. Wieden + Kennedy’s WKE site recently had a short video feature on a couple of cassette-only labels in Portland.

From Andy Sawyer’s “Signs of Use.”

That said, the idea of the cassette, so far as I know, doesn’t have all that much to do with with nostalgia for or connection to the sounds it produced; you can find somebody to tell you vinyl sounds better, but are there advocates of the audio quality of cassettes? Maybe, but it would be a lot easier to find the cassette used as material, or a visual trope, or a subject for interpretation as a physical thing, not a medium of sound per se. (Both that Pitchfork story and a recent WSJ writeup about a guy with a huge collection of 8-tracks (a whole other story of course) note that a mere 34,000 cassettes were sold in 2009 — a truly surreal drop from 8.6 million in 2004.)

This Popmatters essay is skeptical that there’s any nostalgia for cassettes at all, but: “If there is a movement for nostalgia for cassettes, it’s not the medium, but for the concept of freedom it offered listeners. For those who thought junior high and high school were exercises in purgatory, a Walkman finally offered some minor refuge.” I would add the car tape-deck to this point. True it was squeezed out by CD players, but a cassette-littered car was once a part of being young.

Maybe the obvious point to make is that the cassettes people like aren’t new ones, but rather cassettes acquired long ago — particularly those given as mixtapes (as opposed to purchased at Sam Goody). That’s the spirit that I suppose drives Cassettes From My Ex, a collection of “sixty hilarious, nostalgic and heartbreaking stories stories all about crushes and mixtapes.”

Cassettes From My Ex

I guess a couple of years ago now, DesignBoom published this impressive roundup of “cassette tape culture.”

The craze for cassettes as music messengers may well be gone, and hundreds of millions of tapes are out there unused, but two current trends have brought them out for a second play. With 80’s nostalgia rife in the visual world and recycling and sustainability mentioned just about everywhere, the humble cassette has undergone several unlikely re-incarnations in the last few years. Whether it be the retro graphics adorning them or the reels of tape inside them cassettes are finding their way back into the hands of the ‘cool’ crowd.

The image at the very top of this  post, by Kate Bingaman-Burt, is a result of a project of hers I mentioned here earlier: Interested in drawing mixtapes, she found that they tended not to be sold in thrift stores and whatnot, so put out an open call for pictures of mixtapes. I’ve sprinkled a couple of other art-images above, and here are some more examples of cassettes as the subject and/or material of art works:

Garth/Extreme Craft highlighted this piece recently, by Bryan Dettmer.

By Bryan Dettmer

From a Flickr Gallery called Beautiful Cassette, these two images:

By wikshirepix

“Cassette Tapes,” by ilovecakedoyou

There’s much more out there. Check out all these mixtape-related groups on Flickr.

A theme suggested by Designboom that was certainly echoed in my own link-collecting at least was often the cassette is used simply as a form for other other products. I’ve repeated a couple of their examples below among mine, but see their post for even more. Does this suggest something about the nature of cassette-nostalgia? Or does it just happen to a form — a slim oblong box — that lends itself easily to many adapted uses, while remaining recognizable?

USB drives are inevitable:

USB Hub By Marc Jacobs

USB Hub By Urban Outfitters

Here’s an Etsy seller who makes belt buckles out of license plates — in this case in the shape/form of a cassette:

By vintageinretrospect

Pouches, wallets, and even totes are popular: Echoes of the cassette as “something that holds personal things”?

By Brave Moonman

By Jenny Henry

By Jason Amendolara

The notebook is also a holder of the personal:

Wednesday Garden

All of the above items of course also can be carried about thus said to have some kind of “signaling” function. What does public display of appreciation of the idea of cassettes suggest?

 By Buttonhead

And what about domestic or office products in cassette form, or using cassettes as material?

Felt LikeIt

Via PopGadget

“Cassettes Not Dead” floor lamp

More on the lamp just above, here.

Having spent much of this post on nostalgia and a kind of skepticism of the cassette’s relevance as a useful music/listening tool in the 21st century, I’ll close this out for now by noting a “cassette tape loop” project, which I don’t actually understand is explained below.

Disquiet: “Elegant cassette-tape loop,” constructed by Marc Fischer.

Disquiet says:

As he explains it, it’s based on an earlier design, and his attempt involved using as much of the interior cassette space as possible. It’s lovely how the familiar mechanisms of a cassette tape appear in a slightly unfamiliar setup, how the looping device retains the structural integrity of the original, and simply builds upon it. This isn’t nostalgia, and nor is it ironic; it’s a logical step forward for a device that time hasn’t quite forgotten. More on Fischer’s tape-loop experiment at He’s promised audio examples in the near future.


UPDATES: Okay, so check the comments for some early reactions, I’ll be adding to this post over the weekend based on what comes in. First one I should point to is Marc “Disquiet” Weidenbaum on that last bit above about the tape-loop, I get it now. (Sorry I was a bit thick about it before.) As Marc explains, what Fischer has apparently made is a cassette that’s been hacked a bit so that it plays one snippet of music (or other sound) up to eight-and-a-half seconds long, endlessly. I’m used to the idea of loops that work digitally, but this would be, I suppose, an analog loop.

Separately Marc also points out another cassette experiment that involves actually using the objects to deal with music and sound in new ways: Stephanie Simek’s Sound Locket: “A ribbon of sounds contained in a necklace made from cassette tape, steel, and silk. Each pendant holds a song on a tightly wound cassette tape that was made especially for this project by soundmakers from around the world.” (Oddly, to me at least, it comes with a CD.)

Sound Locket by Staphanie Simek. Click for more info.

In addition to comments here there’s more on the Consumed Facebook page. (In one of Marc’s comments below he mentions the “mechanical thud” of a cassette coming to its end in a tape deck; one of the FB commenters mentions “there’s something so satisfying about the ‘click’ when you press play on the tape deck.” So there’s a whole other layer of sound connected to the cassette experience I hadn’t thought about.)

And I’m pleased to say Metafilter picked this up, and so did Fark, so there’s a lot there too. So here  goes with adding new stuff, starting March 21, 2010. I’m a little swamped with stuff as some of this material that’s been so helpfully suggested takes some scrutiny, so I’ll keep adding gradually. And will happily accept more! Thanks!

Things to read/view include:

  • Essay on “I Still Make Tapes,” by Gabe Meline, here. Good stuff!
  • Meline also has a piece about the thrill of receiving newly manufactured cassettes for five local bands. It contains this: “I’ve been assured that there’s only 100 copies of these cassettes out there, which considering the demand for cassettes these days is probably about 97 copies too many. They come packaged in a $10 5-Pack, boasting ‘Now With Compromised Fidelity!'”
  • It appears someone has started a Facebook page called Cassette as an indirect result of this post? If you’re a fan, fan up.
  • Marc shares this post, a glimpse “from deep in the world of cassette-sound-art,” where it turns out that “apparently the Parisians who fiddle with the cassette as an artist medium at ‘cassetteurs.'”
  • As long as as we’re international: Check out Kaseta, which I gather means “cassette” in Hebrew. The site is in Hebrew. So actually I don’t know what it says. But Penny in the comments tells me (us): “For 4 years I’m collecting and writing about cassette culture and about tapes and cassette as an icon, mixtape culture, tapes as a tool for musicians in the present etc.” So that seems on point.
  • This New York Magazine article about a Brooklyn label that has a cassette only arm called Fuck It Tapes.
  • Here and here, producer J-Zone explains his preference for tapes.  In the video in the second link he notes that “O.G.s rock tapes,” and the more surprising argument that newer formats have merely enabled the distribution of more “wack shit” that’s not worth hearing, meaning that sticking with tapes offers de facto quality control. He also points out all the stuff in his collection that’s not available on iTunes. “I’m from the old school,” he points out.  It’s very entertaining, and also profane, if that’s an issue.
  • Justin Blackman has a wistful essay, The Death of the Mixtape, on Facebook.
  • The MySpace of the Mixtapes Do Exist Project is here.
  • The MySpace of another cassette-only label, Hair On My Food Tapes, is here.
  • BoingBoing recently posted this video, which satirizes the arguments of contemporary music companies regarding file sharing by way of a fake 1980s-era campaign, “Home Taping Is Killing Music.”
  • Though it runs contrary to a lot of the cassette love that this post revealed, I think this comment from The Selective Memory cannot be dismissed: “Dear cassette, please just give up the ghost and die already. We’re not missing anything with you gone.  I love magnetic technology, but you represent all that needs to pass with the consumer side.  Just let go.  We’ll sing your praises, I promise.  Posthumously.”
  • I’m hesitant to bring up the Boom Box, which seems like a whole other can of worms, but, it has to be acknowledged as a device that is as important to the idea of the cassette as the Walkman, or the car cassette deck. Right? So here is The Boombox Timeline, a visual history of the Boom Box era. Via Bsky.

On the tapes-as-art-and/or-design-material front, one of the comments reminded me of these great portraits made with tape (which made the rounds a while ago, I don’t know how I managed to forget).

Click to see a full Flickr set

Type, from tape:

By Ersinhan Ersin; click pic for more info.

Cassette Mobius Strip by Christian Marclay.

Conrad Bakker’s 2003 “Untitled Project: Mixtapeswap” offered people the chance to trade an actual mixtape for for a “carved, painted mixtape.”

Mixtapeswap. Click for details.

Product additions:

Here’s a USB packaged in a cassette-shape, via Bsky and commenter Jason, who points to more info here.

From Suck UK. Click for details.

Commenter Jason also notes this 2007 writeup about an “MP3 Player Inside a Cassette.” (Below.)

Cassette MP3 Player. Click for details.

This company, Transparent House, offers “a tribute to an object of their 80s youth,” the cassette, here used in the creation of a lamp:

Lamp by Trasparent House, click for details.

Another lighting project via the comments: “This piece is comprised of 42 found cassettes. when wall hung, and back-lit, the cassettes come alive and create a graphic pop art piece”:

By David Kugielsky. Click pic for details.

Here are neckties made partly from recycled cassette tape:

By Alyce Santoro, click for more info.

More items (most via comments):

Cassette Tape Buttons, by Sniffle Co. Click for more info.

ASOS Cassette Face Watch

Cassette Envelopes

Recycled Glass Soap Dispenser – Cassette Tape

Also this:

Via the comments.

April 27, 2010 update: After I wrote a piece related to this post in Consumed, a couple more notes/suggestions came in. More  or welcome, but I have a feeling we’re nearing the end on this one:

In Brighton, says Wooster Collective.

Crocheted cassette tape, pins, wall, cassette tape; Nicola Vruwink; click for more.

Thx: Randy K. and @rafikam

Okay, one more, from PSFK, 5/6/10:


Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Don’t know if anyone has listed this lovely archive as yet.


Written By Joel Priestland on July 9th, 2010 @ 12:02 am

Hey, Rob:
FYI, if you didn’t catch it, a cassette-centered story ran on NPR today:

Written By Molly Block on February 24th, 2011 @ 12:57 am

Molly, hadn’t caught that, listening now!

Written By Rob Walker on February 25th, 2011 @ 10:17 am
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