Final Thoughts on Cassettes
A few elaborations on last week's discussion-inducing piece
My latest piece, on the death, and fascinating afterlife, of the cassette tape, sparked a lot of discussion and some counterpoints. The good folks at Tapeheads, the online cassette enthusiast forum which I perused as part of my research, even noticed it. Who am I kidding—these probably aren’t my final thoughts on this subject. But I’d like to respond to some of the comments.
The first thing I saw was a fair amount of bafflement that anybody still cares about cassette tapes, or that anybody even likes them. Most of the people who’ve moved on from the format seem to think the revival of interest is a less interesting side effect of the vinyl resurgence, merely a nostalgia looking for an object.
This may be partly true, but there are a couple of indications that it may not be the whole story. First of all, much of the interest in cassettes comes from young people, many of whom were not alive during the height of the format’s original run. Second, cassette sales, like vinyl, are seeing a string of year-over-year increases. The efforts of U.S.-based National Audio Company and of the European company Recording the Masters to manufacture brand new tapes suggest that analysts believe there is a real market here.
While physical formats and media will probably be niche from here on out, the years-long trend of increasing sales suggests a real backlash of sorts to the ephemeral nature of the digital download, which dilutes the notion of ownership and reduces the ability to form memories and rituals. Maybe people really like tactile things, and maybe the trade-off between sound fidelity and tactile-ness is worth it for an increasing number of music listeners. (What’s more, even that trade-off wasn’t as stark 30 years ago as it is now; the best tapes and equipment really could get close to CD quality, which makes their disappearance more notable than it would otherwise be.)
The other recurring comment I got was on my claim that the death of the cassette industry raised an argument for industrial protection. I wrote the following:
There are several lessons here. The most politically salient is that in manufacturing, as in cooking, it is possible to “lose the recipe.” And with an accelerating pace of technological progress, it is possible to lose it in an alarmingly short span of time. This is perhaps the strongest argument for some form of industrial policy or trade protection: the recognition that the national value of manufacturing often lies not so much in the end product itself, but in the accumulated knowledge that goes into it, and the possibility of old processes and knowledge sparking new innovation. Of course, innovation is itself what killed the high-end cassette player. But many otherwise viable industries have struggled under the free-trade regime.
I’m arguing not that cassettes were an example of an industry killed by free trade (in any case, Japan had cornered that industry even by the ’80s), but that many much more relevant industries have been diminished in the same way. They still exist, just not on our shores. Whatever deep, embodied knowledge goes into them, and whatever innovation may come out of them, takes place in other countries, and may well be lost in ours. Yes, I’m not a free trader. (For more sophisticated analysis from this point of view, check out commentator and TAC contributor Eamonn Fingleton’s books and articles.)