Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Video Killed The Radio Star. Or Did MP3 Kill The cassette?

The first victim was vinyl, then video and now cassette has become the latest victim to suffer a grisly death at the hands of the digital takeover.

In May 2007 Currys was the last retailer to pull cassette tapes off the shelves. But the once ├╝ber cool cassette didn’t go down without a fight. Its fall from grace spanning over two decades, which saw the revolutionary compact disc and most recently the dawning of the digital age take hold. But, for me, finding a copy of Now that’s what I call music 11 with such greats as Bananarama’s I Can’t Help It and Yazz & The Plastic Population’s Doctorin’ the House bought memories flooding back. Finding, in a sellotaped shoe box, a dust encrusted, plastic cassette case and torn inlay card with a once white (now tinged yellow) cassette tape inside.

Introduced in 1963 by Phillips, the cassette tape was originally felt to be revolutionary due to re-recording capabilities. To artists recording on vinyl it became the latest in recording gadgetry. Armed with its trusty sidekick (and nifty invention by Sony) the Walkman, the cassette tape became an icon of the 1980s. Smaller than its musical predecessor, the 12” and 7” record, it could hold more music and so was the pinnacle of music technology prior to the invasion of the digital age. The tape was many a milestone to 80s teenagers, marked by the tape play list compiled by a love struck boyfriend or girlfriend. So, the cassette tape is to remain in the stored old boxes of unwanted childhood items that may never see the light of day again.

Ok, so maybe cassette tapes were a bit crappy. I remember spending ages sticking a pencil in the reel to rewind it after either my tape player or the tape itself was about to collapse from exhaustion. But that was half the fun. Now, all it takes is the click of a button to download whole albums onto your PC or iPod. But the cassette tape’s major flaw, like kryptonite to Superman, was the fact that it could rarely hold much musical info. Bearing in mind that one iPod can, on average, hold what would be stored on 1,500 tapes!

Although the death of the tape marks the possible end for mechanical audio technology2 it does also indicate a possible end for the future of private audio facilities. As with CDs which are bought as tangible and individual items, the boom in downloads has meant that the monitoring systems put in place in order to avoid fraud and illegal downloading can now monitor what you listen to and when. Through the intangibility of the MP3, privacy of audio entertainment may become a thing of the past and possibly even become obsolete.

But as has been predicted by music retailers that CD sales are also starting to fall, the death of the cassette only stands to mark a loss in consumer privacy, once the last tangible manner of audio entertainment becomes extinct. Although DVDs have remained as popular as since their launch, their format is about to be upgraded through the introduction of Blu ray discs (BD). This will bring digital technology to a new generation with the use of high definition video (HD).
But if and when tangible musical storage devices such as cassette tapes, videos and CDs become the stuff of 1980s and 1990s almanacs it will take aid in saving the environment. As musical entertainment becomes intangible then there’ll be nothing to actually throw away. With MP3 players getting smaller and iPods following suit, the most damaging appliances to the environment will be easier to depose of.

Christina Warner