From Analogue to Digital, From Pragmatism to Symbolism – The Cassette Tape as a Hybrid Artefact in Contemporary Popular Music

The following is my notes from a paper presentation at University of Westminster and Goldsmiths University’s Symposium for Student Research in Popular Music, on the 24th June, 2015.
tape 2
Around this time last year I presented a paper at University of Sussex’s Musical Materialities in the digital age conference entitled Revaluing a Devalued Format: Exploring Cassette Culture in Scotland’s Independent Music Scene. Drawing upon data gathered from semi structured interviews with participants in Scottish indie and punk circles, I attempted to present an account of the cassette tape’s reemergence as a unit of currency in these circles. Conscious of criticisms by commentators such as Simon Reynolds’ (2011) disparaging accounts of ‘retro’ faddishness and the fetishisation of ‘vintage’ aesthetics, I was keen to present an account that was less about prioritising the artefact in-and-of-itself, but rather, the relationship that those in the circles I was exploring had with the cassette. In that paper, I made the argument that the cassette’s post-millennial marriage to the digital download code had resulted in not just a re-emergence, but in fact a re-valuing of the cassette – a redefining of what it is, what it represents, and the practices that surround it – transforming it from a primarily pragmatic thing into one which is predominantly symbolic, and recreating it as a hybrid artefact – one which is at once analogue and digital, at once physical and intangible.

I am very much aware of the context of this symposium – as research students studying popular music, I suspect that for many of you the re-emergence of cassettes is neither new nor surprising information. However, what I intend to talk about today is not simply the artefact in-and-of-itself, but rather, our relationship with the artefact as a thing. My aim for this paper is to develop and discuss new theoretical perspectives on our relationships with things. I will begin by outlining my assertion that the cassette has transitioned from being a wholly analogue entity to something that is at once analogue and digital, discussing how this transition has impacted upon our relationship with the cassette, shifting from a predominantly functional and pragmatic relationship to one that is predominantly symbolic, and recreating the cassette as a hybrid artefact.

From Analogue to Digital…

mango tapeTransformuration‘ by Jo Mango

In order to examine the notion of the post-millennial cassette, I would first like to outline exactly what I mean by this idea. I use the term to differentiate between the cassette tape as a site of particular cultures and practices in an entirely analogue system of music consumption (broadly, from the early 1960s to the mid-to-late 1980s), and in its current incarnation as an analogue artefact that exists in tandem with digital functionality, through its pairing with the digital download code. In exploring exactly why the format had re-emerged, I carried out a series of semi-structured interviews with participants in this post-millennial cassette culture, in order to gain a first hand insight into the cultural forms and practices that defined their relationship with the cassette. From these interviews, several key themes around the value of the cassette emerged – physicality, collectability, convenience, and participation in “The Scene”. These themes, upon reflection, are actually all very closely linked, and effectively collapse down to a concern with the cassette as a thing on one hand, and how your relationship with that thing connects you to a wider system of culture and practice. In the conversations surrounding these key themes, it also became quickly apparent that many of the participants did not actually listen to the cassettes that they were buying, but rather, listened to the digital download that accompanies the vast majority of post-millennial cassette releases.

The question then turned to why is this the case? Why bother to have the cassette if you are not using it for its primary function. Participants emphasised the cassette as a convenient and cheap way of catering for their desire for a physical thing. The majority of them highlighted that even though they were aware that they could access the same music online for free, the purchasing and ownership of a certain cassette is important as a means of putting money in the hands of the artists and labels that you enjoy. It becomes a symbolic token of your involvement with a scene, as a person who doesn’t merely observe or listen, but instead an active participant in independent music who actively contributes to the production of culture. Based on these comments, I arrived at the conclusion that the practice of the participants in this particular scene is not about fetishising the cassette as a retro artefact, but about redefining it. While nostalgia clearly plays a part in this practice, it is not mere nostalgia. Rather, I argue that nostalgia is a contributing factor in the way in which participants in independent music in Scotland are revaluing the cassette, redefining it as a hybrid symbolic and cultural artefact.

From Pragmatism to Symbolism…

To fully understand the significance of this shift it is important to examine the cassette in tandem with the effect that it has upon our relationship with the artefact. Where this relationship was once a pragmatic one based on the functionality of the tape over any aesthetic judgements, the shift towards social-cultural hybridity has recreated the primary value of the physical cassette.

“I think some of (the people involved in the indie and punk scene) are going out and buying tape players. I would say that it’s fifty-fifty (between people who listen to the tapes they purchase and those who only listen to downloads). But you get the download code and it looks cool”

“I’ll be honest, I know two people who regularly buy from me who actually own a cassette player…”

The above quotes, taken from two of my research interviews, are a good example of this shift towards shift towards social-cultural hybridity. Based on this example, we can usefully apply Preston’s (2000) notion of ‘proper function’ of the cassette as initially being its music playing / recording / replaying capacity. It’s aesthetic and symbolic values were ‘system functions’ – functions that it served in a wider system of culture and society, but that did not explain its reason for existing in the first place. As evidenced by the above example, my assertion that the primary function of the cassette within particular music scenes is now predominantly symbolic rather than functional. The participant’s comments that as many as half of his customers who buy cassettes don’t even own cassette players demonstrates a shift in the proper function of the cassette, from being a music playing device (now supplanted to digital technology) to being both aesthetic and symbolic.

To develop this, I offer a brief comparison of an existing body of work that focuses on a previous cassette culture – Moore’s (2004) Mixtape: the art of cassette culture – with my own research into the post-millennial cassette.

tape 3From Thurston Moore’s ‘Mixtape: The Art of Cassette Culture

Mixtape

  • Entirely analogue in both functionality and appearance
  • Emphasises creative and social functions
  • Use, Exchange, and Symbolic Values all contained within the artefact

Post-Millennial

  • Analogue functionality is still present, but often unused, instead supplanted by digital functionality for listening
  • Shift of emphasis from creative production to consumption
  • Exchange and Symbolic values contained within the artefact, Use value is transplanted to digital technologies

In Moore’s incarnation of cassette culture, value in a cassette was an aggregate of its exchange value (what you paid for it / what you could swap it for), its symbolic value (as a statement of taste, identity, and cultural competency), and it’s use value (primarily as a means of transporting and reproducing music). For the participants that I spoke to, today these values have become fragmented, and the cassette tape itself reinvented as a hybrid artefact. The exchange value and symbolic value still reside with the artefact itself, but its use value as a means of actually listening to music now resides elsewhere. In this sense, the cassette as an artefact is no longer a pragmatic tool, it is a symbolic tool primarily (but not exclusively) used in identity construction.

At first glance, it would be easy to make the argument that this shift is simply a shift from an active, meaningful engagement with culture on one hand, to a passive, shallow materialism on the other. One of the commentators in Moore’s book summarised the relationship that people in his social scene had with the mixtape:

‘Predigested cultural artefacts combined with homespun technology and magic markers turn the mixtape into a message in a bottle. I am no mere consumer of pop culture, it says, but also a producer of it.’ (Veigener in Moore, 2004: 25)

This quote is broadly representative of the majority of conversations that I have had with those who engaged with cassette culture in the 1980s, emphasising the agency of the individual, and foregrounding the creative and social elements of their cassette culture in opposition to a perceived passive and shallow materialism associated with modern re-appropriations of cassettes, vinyl records, and other retro forms and formats. However, for those who I interviewed, their relationship with the cassette was seen as anything but passive:

“I think tape’s for people who care, who put a bit more into music than listening to the radio or watching TV. Its for people who care.”

“I think the tape is kind of materialistic because you want to own something, you know? … I think it’s sort of a collectors thing, and it supports the band, which is probably the main thing…I think its the thing of owning something, being able to own something…”

To those who I interviewed, the cassette, and their relationship with it, was seen not as passive or shallow, but as an active means of participating and contributing to ‘their scene’. While some participants acknowledged that there was a materialism to their relationship with the cassette, it was far from a passive or shallow materialism. To them, the cassette was a way of supporting acts and labels producing niche music, whilst coming away from the transaction with an artefact that physically connected them to the acts, labels, and spaces that they associate with that scene. “No one wants to buy a digital download code at a show”, remarked one participant, “you want to come away with a thing”. To those that I interviewed, the cassette served as a symbolic link between the digital practice of listening to recorded music, and the physical, concrete relationship that they have with the bands, labels, and spaces that they associate with their scene – a symbolic intermediary between digital and physical practices, and one that is both representative of and enacting hybridity.

Hybridity: The Post-millennial Cassette as a Thing

As I mentioned at the start of this paper, I am keen to avoid the trap of merely fetishising an object. As such, I am more concerned in exploring the various strands that have run through this paper culminate in telling us something about the relationship with cassettes specifically, as outlined above, might tell us something about relationships between people and things more generally. It is commonplace in current discussions of culture and technology to talk about the ‘Digital Age’ – a state of existence that is defined by digital technologies and our relationships to them. I would like to contend that, at least insofar as our relationship with music technologies, our current condition is less one defined by digitalisation exclusively, but rather, one that is defined by the same sense of hybridity that applies to the post-millennial use of cassettes. In this paper so far I have offered an account of the post-millennial cassette as something that is at once analogue and digital. Its unique and separate analogue and digital qualities are clearly identifiable, but yet they are inextricable when viewed in the context of our relationship with them. Today, the cassette is no longer an outmoded pop relic. Instead, like the turntable and records, participants in scenes and subcultures have recreated and redefined its ‘system functions’, shifting from a functional, pragmatic tool to one that is primarily (but not exclusively) symbolic, cultural artefact.

I believe that increasing digitalisation of culture in general has led to a re-approaching of physical things, like cassettes. Over the past couple of decades, many of our cultural practices have been defined by a rapid development and embracing of digital technologies. Yet, as shown through the example of the use of cassettes in indie music in Scotland, for some individuals and groups within contemporary popular culture, this increasingly digital culture has also led to the rediscovery and redefinition of artefacts and materialities from previous cultural periods. We often view technologies, and the practices associated with them, in a kind of binary way – analogue versus digital, digitalisation versus physicality. I would argue, however, that, in fact, they exist within a continuum of practice and consumption – an analogue-to-digital spectrum of things, and importantly, one where our relationship with one particular point of the spectrum informs and impacts upon our relationship with others. The participants in my research, who adopted digital listening practices, but still sought after a physical thing, are just one example of this interrelation of analogue and digital influences on cultural practice. Even practices that are, at first glance, defined by the analogue nature of the format involved, are impacted upon by digital technologies. When describing an analogue listening experience, such as listening to a vinyl record, the terms commonly used to describe the sound – ‘warm’ perhaps, or ‘textural’ – are used to in opposition to the implicitly ‘cold’ or sterile sound of digital music. Likewise, when we talk about the portability of digital music players, we are defining them in opposition to clunky, importable analogue formats.

So what does this state of hybridity mean for our relationship with music artefacts? Certainly, there is the risk that by separating our functional relationship with an artefact from the artefact itself, there is a danger that this leads to the fetishisation of objects for objects’ sake, a state of what Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton describe as ‘alienated attention’, or a culture which directs consumers to pay attention to attention-getting devices rather than the specific functions or qualities of the goods themselves (1981: 186). However, as I just argued, to describe their relationship with the cassette as mere fetish would be to take a very narrow conception of the cassette’s function in the context in which it is used. That the cassette is not used primarily as a music playing device does not immediately mean that is without function. I contend that by taking the hybridity of our relationship with recorded music, and the artefacts and practices that make up these relationships, as a starting point, we can move towards a more fully realised and well-rounded understanding of the ways that we negotiate value in a system of culture that is increasingly defined by accelerating digitalisation on one hand, and the rediscovery and redefinition of material things on the other. By viewing artefacts like the post-millennial cassette not as a materialistic fetish, but rather, as a symbolic thing, linking together sets of digital and physical cultural practices, we can better understand the richness and totality of how these practices as a whole enact meaning and value, without over-privileging, or arbitrarily dismissing one or the other.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981) The Meaning of Things – Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge [Eng.]; New York: Cambridge University Press

Preston, B. (2000) ‘The Function of Things – A philosophical perspective on material culture’, in Graves-Brown (ed.) (2000) Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture. London: Routledge pp 22-49

Reynolds, S. (2011) Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. London: Faber and Faber

Taylor, I. (2014) Revaluing a Devalued Format: Exploring Cassette Culture in Scotland’s Independent Music Scene. Conference Paper presented at the Musical Materialities in the digital age Conference, University of Sussex, 27-28 June.

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