I still make tapes. Step into my car, and there are cassette tapes all over the floor. I suppose that’s weird, but weirder still is that they’re not just from older artists of the golden cassette era, like Bruce Springsteen and Huey Lewis. The sight of modern band names like Deerhunter and Girl Talk written on cassette spines always gets comments. It’s a jarring collision of the old and the new, people say, like watching a Pixar film on a 16mm classroom projector. And I’m always asked the same question: “Why do you still make tapes?”
I still make tapes because I have always made tapes, and I tend to continue to do things that I have always done. But it’s more complex than that. Forget mix tapes—that’s a whole other story, one explored a thousand times over. I’m talking about the act of fitting whole and complete albums on to cassette, a process that gratefully involves the inquisitive mind of a human being.
I still make tapes because making tapes connects me to albums in idiosyncratic ways. Setting the recording level and finger-winding through the leader. Concentrating on the guitar solo to determine exactly where it’s most appropriate to fade the song before the tape cuts off. Asking myself if it’s worth it to re-record a song that skipped and then deciding not to, and then getting used to the skip, and then hearing the same song elsewhere and actually missing the skip. Imprinting activity on the final product, a precursor to the laptop remix, as a way of saying this is my music as much as theirs.
I still make tapes because I believe in the beauty of confines and the patience of enjoyment. I’m not convinced that the ability to immediately jump to the next song is an asset. I absolutely loathed lots of my favorite albums at first. I waited it out. I recorded them on a cassette and didn’t fast-forward, and I fell in love with them.
I still make tapes because christening a new cassette with your own artwork is like lending your personal stamp of approval to an album. “You have graduated to cassette status,” goes the ceremonial speech, “and you shall now receive a knighthood of rub-on lettering and watercolor.” Don’t forget the spine, and finding new ways to cover up the cassette’s brand name, although the jacket and the label are important too, with perhaps just enough paint on the shell so it won’t get stuck in the stereo.
I still make tapes because I love the challenge of getting two albums to mesh successfully on two sides of one cassette. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, please meet Jets to Brazil’s Perfecting Loneliness. The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee and Crooked Fingers’ Red Devil Dawn; Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People and Against Me’s As the Eternal Cowboy; M.I.A.’s Arular and Edan’s Beauty and the Beat—these are albums permanently conjoined in my mind. (There are the failures, too. Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey on the same tape as Pete Rock’s Petestrumentals. What was I thinking?)
I still make tapes for the brutality of listing songs on the jacket, resulting in the absolute tiniest handwriting ever exhibited by humankind. Should I try to fit “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me” on one line of writing or two? I’ll count the songs—should I list them on the inside to make room for artwork or on the outside, and if so, do I need to maximize space on the lines? Can I list “Move the Crowd” and “Paid in Full” on the same line, separated by a dash? Can this album even fit on a 90-minute tape? If not, which songs do I cut?
I still make tapes because making tapes forces me to ask these questions—dozens more questions about an album than I would have ever asked myself otherwise, and the answers point me to a greater understanding. It’s not how much music you have, it’s how well you know it.
I still make tapes because I don’t believe the old line that the medium is the message—not with music, at least. I scored another 100-capacity Napa Valley Wood Cassette Rack at the Salvation Army last week, and I’ve got a pile of new LPs and CDs that I’m dying to pore over and commit to cassette for the car, for the boombox or for the Walkman. Yeah, I still own a Walkman. Yeah, it’s almost 2009. The music’s the same. What gives?