Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Life-support, or Memorex

The kitschy cassette hits 50, and somehow it keeps turning heads

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The audio cassette tape turned the big five-oh last month. To mark that milestone, a British website came up with a list of things to do with your dusty, old relics.

One proposal was to give cassettes a second life as belt buckles. Another was to recycle the covers as luggage tags. Thirdly, it suggested unravelling the tape from the hubs and using it as gift-wrap ribbon. Or pom-poms.

Stephane Doucet, a drummer for a Winnipeg punk band, has an even more unconventional use for his tapes: he listens to them.

"When I was in my teens I started buying CDs, then records," Doucet says. "After a while I got rid of my vinyl and started picking up tapes because I didn't have much money and if I wanted to buy an album by a certain group, it was almost always cheaper to find it on cassette than on record."

Doucet, 25, has since developed a fondness for that other byproduct of cassettes: the mix tape. A couple of months ago he placed an ad on Kijiji, looking for blank 60- and 90-minute tapes he could convert into personalized soundtracks for friends.

"When my band's on tour I'll bring a bunch (of tapes) with me and give them as gifts to people who organize our shows or let us stay at their home," he says, handing a newspaper scribe a homemade effort bookended by Patti Smith's Easter and Salem's Till the World Ends.

Portability was, in fact, one of the chief reasons cassettes were such a hit with the music-buying public in the first place. By the mid-1970s -- a little more than a decade after audio cassettes made their debut at a trade show in Germany in August 1963 -- in-dash decks were becoming standard equipment in new automobiles.

A few years later, sales of prerecorded cassettes went through the roof after Sony unveiled the world's first portable cassette player, the Walkman. By 1986, cassettes were outselling their vinyl counterparts.

The invention of the compact disc and later, the MP3 player, sounded the format's death knell, however. In 1993, 442 million prerecorded tapes were sold in the United States alone. By 2009 that number had plummeted to just 34,000.

Don't hit the eject button just yet, mind you.

According to Jeff Bishop, owner of the Sound Exchange, cassettes are making a slow but steady comeback. And surprise: it is people who grew up with iTunes who are driving sales.

"Right now all these 20-somethings are walking around with the most up-to-date everything -- be it a 64-gig iPhone or a 128-gig iPad or whatever," says Bishop, whose parents, Tom and Lynn, opened the used music store at 557 Portage Ave., almost 40 years ago. "So in order to stand out from the crowd, young people have to go retro."

Bishop, 45, has warm memories of listening to music cassettes. In the early 1980s, his parents purchased a Walky, Toshiba's version of the Walkman. One morning, they let their son take it to school and, well, why don't we let Bishop tell the story...

"I was sitting in science class, listening to Rush's Hemispheres cranked at full volume, on a pair of slim-line headphones," says the former âcole Varennes student. "I distinctly remember looking around, thinking, 'This is insane. No one in this room is aware that I am in a totally different dimension than they are."

On any given day, Bishop has hundreds of cassettes for sale in a variety of genres. He needs to keep his shelves fully stocked, he says, because cassettes are a bit like potato chips: you can't stop at one.

"The kids who come in literally buy them by the arms' length, like how you get raffle tickets at a social. And there are no limitations as to what they're picking up. If it looks interesting they want it. They're as likely to buy Thin Lizzy as Tom Jones as Nat King Cole."

Bishop acknowledges cassettes have their share of shortcomings: for one, the artwork isn't on par with what you get from an LP and, in most cases, you need a "jeweller's loupe" to make out the liner notes. Still, like vinyl, rare cassettes can command big bucks on the secondary market.

"Without a doubt, some are worth hundreds -- if not thousands -- of dollars," says Bishop, who used to host an antiques and collectibles show on CJOB. "There are certain titles that, for whatever reason, were only released on cassette. So if you want that content, buying the tape is the only way you're ever going to get it."

Chris Jacques runs Dub Ditch Picnic Records and Prairie Fire Tapes -- a pair of Winnipeg-based, cassette-only labels. His affection for tapes runs deep, too: when he was in grade school, he used to listen to music on a one-speaker stereo his grandmother gave him for his fifth birthday.

"She bought me three tapes to go along with it: Kiss's first album, Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits and Macho Man by the Village People," he says. (Sorry, we neglected to ask Jacques which of those three was his favourite.)

When Jacques got older, he spent the majority of his paper route money on new tapes. By the time he was 13 or so, he owned close to 500 titles.

"Everything in my bedroom was a shambles except my tapes. They were never left out of their cases and I always made sure to run them to the end -- never stopped midway through -- so the tape wouldn't stretch."

Nowadays, Jacques, 42, works primarily with bands that fall under categories like noise, drone, garage rock or punk. Response is overwhelmingly positive, he says, when he lets potential clients in on his tool-of-choice.

"A lot of times they tell me, 'That's perfect,' cause when it comes to the underground scene, everybody's broke," Jacques says with a laugh. "At a live show, if you've got a CD priced at $15 or $20, you'll hear, 'I really want to buy some of your music but that's like three drinks.' But if you've got a $5 cassette, people will go, 'Oh, great.' "

Of course, Jacques is aware of what serious audiophiles think of cassettes -- how they pooh-pooh them because of their inferior sound quality, when compared to records or CDs.

"When I'm making a master tape I try to keep the levels nice and high so there isn't a lot of background noise," he says. "But a bit of hiss is inevitable. And if you ask me, it's endearing, too."

Cassettes are more than a nostalgia item at one city stereo shop.

"We still have blank cassettes for sale although annual sales are a fraction of what they used to be," says Ed Gossen of Brian Reimer Audio. "We used to bring in TDK SA-90s by the pallet-load on a regular basis. Now we sell a handful every year."

The St. Mary's Road stereo shop usually tries to keep at least one cassette deck in stock, Gossen says. Right now, shoppers can pick up a TEAC dual cassette deck -- perfect for making the type of mix tape made famous in movies like High Fidelity -- for $349. A second machine featuring a cassette/CD combo retails for $379.

"In the last year we sold one cassette deck," Gossen says. "Over the past five years, we've sold two or three, per year."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 D11

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