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Read. Suffer. Try to Enjoy.

The Death Of The Audio Cassette - A Lament

Was cleaning out my stuff the other day, and happened to come across my lately and largely forgotten audio cassette collection. Could not help marvel at how quickly these things have become obsolete. Personally, I haven't bought a cassette in more than 4 years now. The whole mp3 wave has almost killed off this little segment of the market. Heck, they survived the audio CD revolution, purely because of the price differential. Given a choice between a 525 buck audio CD (with an ‘Imported!!!’ label on it to boot), and a 45 buck tape, apun ka choice clear tha (as Vakil Mulay from Satya would put it).

But how do you essentially deal with something that is FREE?!

Tapes were something that had an aspirational value to them (at least in my perfectly middle class upbringing, they had). Like He-Man dolls (sorry... action figures, action figures) a tape would be obtained when you 'came first' in class, or on a special occasion/festival. That was something to look forward to, and the anticipation? Ayyo Raghavendra. The only thing that comes close is my current desperate craving for weekends, and the sheer narcotic kick that I get when I’m on my way home on Friday night. Yes, that’s how good it was.

Then there would be the trip to the music store. Now this would be an entire outing in itself - agonizing over what tape to buy on the way, and spending a nice amount of time in the shop, just generally and self importantly looking at the titles, wishing you could buy them ALL. Now albums by 'heavier' artistes like Slayer, Sepultura, Megadeth et al, would be virtually non-existent. I guess the music companies (MIL, Bremen Music, BMG et al) would press just 10 copies of these albums and the music stores would hide them like they were clues to a particularly nasty treasure hunt (no wonder I didn’t think the Da Vinci Code was “all that”). The music store guys would hardly ever have heard of them, and would greet you with their friendliest blank stares when asked where the Slayer/Megadeth albums were. So it was all up to you...digging through all the lowermost shelves, squatting down till you felt that the 'mungees' that you were getting in your feet were dancing at a rave party, and then finally hitting pay dirt. Only to be severely constrained by the lone 50 buck note in your pocket. Poverty striketh. And it striketh hard. And then, with a heavy heart, selecting one and wistfully placing the other gems back. Only, I would thoughtfully hide them behind Mory Kante and Jagjit Singh albums so that others couldn't swipe them away till my next visit. Have to admit though, this never really worked…

Given how you would have sweated to build up a little collection, lending tapes would be a real ordeal. You would want them back. That’s all. Not too much to ask right? But the loss of a tape would REALLY cause issues between the best of friends, directly proportional to the rarity of the title. Likewise, the heartburn that you would get when such a tape was gobbled up by your greedy defective player/walkman was comparable to watching our cricket team play. These mangled remains would then be salvaged by ingenious, aspiring-scientist moi by trying to splice them together with nail polish. It worked. Honest.

Album add-ons would really never be a redeeming feature, considering that there would never be any lyrics booklets, or album inlay artwork. What you would get instead, was a cheesy marketing feedback form, promising you a free cassette in a lucky draw. People used to actually buy lyrics books and a lot of them would kill for lyrics, and take photocopies of the booklets from lucky CD-owning friends. By the time international class album packaging was available here, it was a case of too little too late.

Contrast all this with mp3s. Which are so… what’s the right word? Sterile? They have no ‘organic’ feel, both in terms of sound fidelity as well as possession. They are just there in some sort of memory storage, and you really cannot attach any sentiment to them. They have no history, and would really not be something to reminisce about and cherish. You definitely cannot get an artiste’s autograph on an mp3 can you?

Pretty much functional and utilitarian? Yes. No rewinding, no fast forwarding, and no oxide-and-fungus-formation-with-age issues. You get to listen to stuff which you would never ever have got hold of in India, even on audio CDs. You can practically download an artiste's entire anthology in a matter of minutes, and be a ‘hard core fan’ in a week’s time, now that lyrics and complete biographies are freely available wherever you click.

But you can never own an mp3...

Ah well, things have changed. End of old fogey post.

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11:52 PM, October 14, 2006
Blogger SEV said...

[Had this really long comment - Damned Google Account sign-in ate it up.]

Was going through my tape collection recently - to ensure its all in mp3 - and was remembering how each one was painstakingly tracked down. Had to actually convert some of them to mp3 when I couldn't lay my hands on the actual mp3s. Ah that hissing noise :)

CDs were the 'rich mans plaything' - most of the silliest ones I have are free - thanks to Horizon ;-)

'Hardcore fans' today seriously don't exist. You have to beg/borrow around for that one tape to really appreciate how great it is.    

5:15 AM, October 15, 2006
Anonymous AJ said...

Why people so self righteous when it comes to being hardcore fans? I mean cant you enjoy music without being a hardcore fan? I remember people in RAIT labelling others as 'ham rockers' for no particular reason.    

6:33 PM, October 15, 2006
Blogger Supremus said...

So True!

I still remember making an all important decision between choosing an oridnary copy of "Aashiqui" or a "Jhankaar beats" copy of the same. Frankly it didnt sound any different on our 19th century tape recorder... but still.

And then there were this "magnetic" tape imported from somewhere, which HMV so proudly used to sell for 125 bucks - it definitely used to sound better.

Sigh, yeah, MP3 have taken out all the fun. Must do a post on this topic soon - beautifully written!


5:19 AM, October 17, 2006
Anonymous Shashank Mayya said...

Ah!...Perfectly described! Those were the days when all I ever thought was cassettes! Daily pilgrimages to Planet M, Embassy in chembur etc...Only to stare at those Rs 125 Tapes and earmark them for the future. I remember, once upon a bunked college day, I landed at the VT planet m for getting my hands on "Life is Peachy" by Korn. I ask all the sales "dudes" (saleswalla's are called sales"dudes" at planet m)for it. To my astonishment, this guy affirms the existence of the tape and I eagerly follow him. To my utter confusion and dismay he takes me to the Hindi section and showns me "Kaun" and that too a VCD!! After giving him a fist and a thanks, I browsed by myself and did locate a SoundGarden tape (badmotorfinger i think) in the bottommost rack in the darkest corner for 60bucks!. A day well spent after all. I did not even bother asking any saleswallah about "Tool" or "Radiohead" after this incident.
However, eventually I hit a gold mine in the form of a person named "Faarukh" who owns a cassette/cd/lp shop near suvidha restaurant...This guy is a major rock fan himself and had all sorts of rare stuff for sale...second hand ofcourse, but what the hell, he sold them for 40bucks (negotiable). Soon, I was getting rare stuff that none of my peers dreamed of owning. Stuff that urban legends are made of...Hope he is still there bringing joy to the middle class rock fan

--Shashank Mayya    

5:52 AM, October 17, 2006
Anonymous Shashank Mayya said...

...since I am not part of the current broadband revolution in India, I cannot comment on the rate of Mp3 downloads now.
But I do remember the VSNL/MTNL Monolpoly days, when it was a privilege to see images on the internet and use an actual browser! (netscape 1.0) instead of that darn hyperterminal/zmodem combo. The days when hacked VSNL account id's were precious commodities passed across in hushed voices and in folded "lemon juice" written scrolls. Yes, Mp3's were definitely getting popular those days but plain economics prohibited their use--->Namely the cost of the telephone connection. Downloading 10 songs @ 4.2Kbps while your dad/mom's hard earned money was trickling down the phone lines just did not seemed worth it and for the non-conscientious folks like me, it was just the pain of a dropped connection. (Napster did not have a resume feature then)    

11:46 PM, October 18, 2006
Blogger Santosh said...

Couldn't agree more with that. Beautifully writen. And like you said the mp3's do lack the 'life' that sound from a tape had. Saving for that one tape your money can buy, the eagerness to get it in ur player and start listening.... wonderful days indeed. I still remember when I almost had a heart break, was saving since days for 'Appetite for Destruction - Guns N Roses' and when I reached the shop, my 100Rs note did a houdini on me. Came back sobbing the entire way scanning the road to see if I can find my Note back and then cried for over an hour. Mom had a hard time understanding why? ;)    

11:07 AM, October 19, 2006
Blogger GuNs said...

Had these tapes that my dad had in his cupboard since ages. I never listened to any English stuff till I was in the 12th, I think. Thats when I had bought a new walkman and I used to lie down on the old cot in the balcony & randomly pop one of those old cassettes into it. We had Kenny Rogers - Love is What We Make It, Michael Jackson - One Day In Your Life, Staying Alive - Film Soundtrack, Dance Hits From the 80s, Country Hits From the Movies etc. One by one, I started loving these cassettes and now, I've downloaded MP3 of many of these songs but a majority of those are still untraceable on the internet.

Cassettes still exist. Rickshawallah's Zindabad !


11:56 PM, October 19, 2006
Blogger Tapan said...

Totally. That one tape which makes you sweat is the one that teaches you what appreciating and craving for good music is all about :)

That's one way of looking at things... I agree.

Yea man, that imported thing was a big deal back in the day. I remember that :)
And jhankaar beats... sigh :)

Dude... Tool on tape?! ROFL. Am freaking convulsing as I type. :)
I fully agree with that download speed vs cost, that's a fantastic point that you bring up. Broadband here has arrived, and we get princely speeds of upto 25 KB/s. Which is a five fold increase over the dialup agony. Dialups really SUCKED as far as downloading mp3s and videos went. You'd rather buy a freaking CD than watch the mp3 drip in, bit by agonizing bit :)

I fully understand that man... I fully understand.

Ricks are probably the only place where tapes still find a market, I guess that includes the entire 'transport' segment. It's all but dead amongst the newer, younger junta I guess. The proletariat still buy them.    

2:42 AM, October 20, 2006
Anonymous Shashank Mayya said...

Arre...I remember that I did manage to get Tool ka Undertow and Opiate on Tape!! That too mastered by apna pyaara EMI music. Like you said, they must have around 10 copies for the Indian subcontinent...    

4:33 AM, November 03, 2007
Blogger shamanth said...

i dunno if u did this,but after fishing for the right tape,i ALWAYS used to test it out on the shopkeeper's tape. That first sound of the first song on the first side of the tape-aaah-pure joy! then cudnt wait till we got home to plug it into the recorder and wear it all out!!!

a true tribute to the true form of music which really COULD BE OWNED.

how i miss the glow of the brown glossy tape!!!    

6:00 AM, December 24, 2008
Blogger B Horror Movie Reviews said...

Thank you for writing this article -- I was searching google for 'ode to the audio cassette - a memoriam' and your post came up.

Why was I searching for that? Well, the little woman at home wanted me to set up the stereo system for Christmas (the one with the cd/tape deck). I went to my crawl space and pulled out my old cassette collection (with Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Led Zep, etc) and tried to play a few songs but alas--the tape deck is broken.

Being a teenager in the early 1990s in Canada I spent ALL of my disposable income on music cassettes. I was making $4.75 washing dishes after school and on weekends for the sole purpose of buying music. I never upgraded to CDs until the early 2000s or so--I kept buying these things because they were easily transportable with a walkman.

I don't really feel guilty about illegally downloading music (I refuse to re-buy my music collection on CD or on "legal" MP3s), I put so much of my sweat and tears buying these nefarious little tapes that I've earned the right to download.

Reading your article brought back a lot of memories about buying music on cassette. Sometimes I do get nostalgic about the little things and I'll pop one in my other tape player; but for me, I think the MP3 player is a vast improvement. If a song comes up that I don't feel like listening to--I'll just press the "next" button. Instant gratification.    

6:35 PM, September 16, 2009
Anonymous KN said...

Planet M has stopped cassettes.
Music World has stopped cassettes.
Temptations has stopped cassettes.

These fools did not realize that it is not cassettes which went to the internet. CDs went into the internet as torrent or mp3 files.

To further compete with these "Music Stores" are road side hawkers which sell CDs at Rs 30.

These shops need bring back cassettes if they want to have sales as they did 5 years back when tape was the king.

It is a big waste to buy CDs when these are anyway available online free of cost.

Low-income market still prefer cassette albums which are priced at 1/3 of the cost of CD albums.

BRING BACK TAPE! They last 3 decades and still play well.    

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9:19 PM, November 05, 2014
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