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Tape loop

If you insist your music arrive only as rented data packets, and consider physical formats an anachronism, then I guess you’re too cool to spool. Me? I’m breaking out the tapes.

Double negative, by Low
Double negative, by Low.

In my left hand lies Double Negative, the most recent album from Low. I’m cradling it gently in my palm as I would my phone. If you’ve let this piece of work permeate your consciousness, you’ll be aware it has a certain auricular weight or form; a robust density to its sound. The cover art is wordless, just an expressionless, mask-like artefact. It emits a silent power that is amplified when held — not as a digital thumbnail framed within the Spotify app, but as a three-dimensional object in its own right.

It’s odd revisiting the cassette. We’re so accustomed to balancing heavier and increasingly elongated rectangles in our hands that the cassette case feels remarkably dainty and light. The thickness is good; chunky. This small item represents so much: a notch in a band’s timeline; a documented moment in the narrative of popular culture, and a symbol — for people my age — of youth and those first meaningful steps toward defining our identities through music.

Experience gaps

Little memories return. That particular sound of the tape case when you open and close it. Ejecting the deck, sliding the cassette in: it’s a rush of little memories. It’s fun. Unfolding the inner card: lyrics in the form of poetry; credits — who played flute on track six? Oh, so that’s the backing vocalist! I find value in the direct action of actually getting off my arse, switching the amp’s audio input, selecting a tape or record and committing to it for 45 minutes. To bypass any of this is to compound further what Jordan Moore calls Experience Gaps, "Areas of potential where digital transformation left behind the meaning and soul of something."

I love streaming and the endless benefits it offers. I consume most of my sounds via Spotify (RIP Rdio), but I’ll always crave dedicated moments with physical media; a more direct connection to the artist. Curiously, even buying MP3s in the 2000s had a sense of attachment: the commitment to purchase, amending file taxonomies to suit my own system, Firewiring to an iPod.

Physicality feels like an investment in something: a relationship with a piece of work that I’ll endeavour to like. If I decide I don’t like it, I will be sure of that, having tested more thoroughly than if it was one of hundreds of Spotify album samplings. In truth, I’m more likely to buy physical copies of albums I’ve fallen for through Spotify. I have a need to own what I love and pay proportionately for that privilege.

Time travel

To me, this is not your common-or-garden nostalgia as evoked by old photos. I think of it more as a powerful kind of time travel. The people in those old photos —that mood, that place, that time — they've gone. With music, the song remains the same, as audible now as it was when first released. It’s a question of what the chosen format or delivery method adds or subtracts from that acoustic experience.

I think back to being thirteen: me and my Dad walking in the rain, to Long Eaton, so he could sign on, and I could buy the heavily-advertised The Cream of Eric Clapton. Owning that tape made it ours; we owned it together, and even though he’s long gone, we still own it together. I’m very much over that album now, but the thought of it — or hearing the opening riff of Layla or some Cream hit — transports me back to 1987 and being with my Dad. I’ll feel so present in that moment that I would absolutely call it time travel.

I’m obliged to mention mixtapes. I spent much of my youth listening to the chart rundown, waiting patiently for the songs I loved. Sunday teatimes, hovering over the record button, aiming to act with exactitude and initiate a clean recording; hopefully pausing nanoseconds before the DJ reappeared. For many, the mixtape was all about impressing friends and potential partners, or at least introducing them to new sounds. I'm a fan of this band, and so should you be; maybe you’ll be so impressed that you’ll go out with me.

Juicy Sonic Magic, by The National
Juicy Sonic Magic, by The National.

The mixtape was an art form, an audible zine, and a first go at curation; an exercise in decision-making, contextualising culture. There was the thrill of fitting in one last song. My mixtape ability peaked in the mid-nineties with “Collison’s World,” a beautifully-packaged mixtape-slash-radio show created to accompany friends on their budget round-the-world trip. Wow, I really put some care into that gift.

The cassette is having a renaissance, and why not? New artists like tapes because they’re a simple way to make a physical product that’s easy to reproduce, carry and exchange. Young electronic artists exploit the format because it suits experimentation. We’re also seeing a renewed interest in recording methods, and the levels of authenticity you get from documenting a live show on tape. This week, The National featured in a film detailing The Mike Millard Method, ahead of releasing Juicy Sonic Magic, a limited triple-tape live recording. There is increasing consumer interest, and stores are popping up around the world to cater to a new generation of tape lovers (my favourite has to be Waltz in Tokyo).

A sense of satisfaction

There are negatives beyond the unavoidable fact that streaming is more convenient in almost every way. Although many new releases come wrapped in card sleeves, all tapes and the majority of cases are plastic, and that alone suggests they ought to remain in the past. Tapes typically wear out, and heads need cleaning with those funny little fluid kits. You also need a machine capable of playing tapes, and that isn’t your computer.

However, there’s something fun about occasionally servicing the tools with which you play music. I love getting my old separates serviced at Dave’s ramshackle hi-fi repair workshop (he is actually a worrying case of hoarding, but seems happy). Recently, I had to perform open-board surgery on my cassette deck to thwart dirt-induced speaker-busting playback. I like the satisfaction that comes from maintenance. It’s a reward you don’t get with a Spotify software update or the laborious setup of a new device that will play music as one of a thousand other tasks.

My preferred TDK D90
My preferred cassette, the TDK D90.

I recently started a mixtape, combining recorded music with other stuff. I can AirPlay to my amp, which makes it easy to transfer anything from the web to tape (though I must turn off notification pings and other system noise). I decided to compile some of my favourite extras not available on Spotify: obscure tracks and EPs, bootlegs, pre-release streams, live performances from YouTube. I realised I could commit some podcasts and conference talks to tape, and all sorts of other weird shit that shouldn’t be on tape at all.

For some reason, I think all of this is brilliant. Perhaps it’s the result of a decade of streaming; two decades of digital music. It’s got a lot to do with my music obsession and need for cultural categorisation and context. Yes, it probably does have a lot to do with nostalgia, and it definitely is some form of mental time travel. All I know is that I never stopped buying vinyl and I’m now hunting down tapes — and I wanted to write about it.

If you'd rather sneer at old formats and think I’m a spool fool, then that’s fine. All I know is that I’m enjoying music in more ways than one, and I feel much richer for it.