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Cassette Tapes: A Look Back & Forward, or: How To Correctly Dust Off a Cassette Tape

Most people are too infatuated with CDs, MP3s and other alphabet soup media to take notice of where the hell cassettes went. Cassettes - you know, that nondigital, rectangular, plastic-driven format that used tape? The format that replaced the eight-track…remember? If your memory needs refreshing, do not turn to a nearby record store to find answers.

One major chain store, FYE, delegates back-wall only to the format that used to span each wall, floor to ceiling. Some independent stores refuse to stock cassettes, and those that sell used music don't trade in them either. In Toms River, N.J., Smiley's Tunes and Toys has gone decidedly un-tune and pumped up the toy aspect, foregoing cassette-tape shelf space. The store slashed prices on cassettes to $5.99 or less.

"There's really no use for cassettes anymore," said music lover Gregory C. Snipe, of Manchester, N.J. "With the current options available, cassettes do not have one pro, and a whole list of cons"

Snipe lists deteriorating sound quality and flimsy design as two big negatives to the format.

"If the sound quality's not there, what's the point?" he asks. Yet in his car, the only way to listen to music other than on the radio is through a cassette player. But, Snipe says he has a tape-to-CD adapter he uses to listen to his CDs, which number about 100. "I don't even know where my cassettes are," Snipe says

According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture (2002), cassettes are still widely used, mainly in cars. Although 2003 models come with a CD player standard (many manufacturers charge extra to put a cassette player instead), there is a massive fleet of cars on the road that aren't new, and therefore are equipped with cassette players. And, the encyclopedia says, the cassette tape remains the dominant form of sound recording worldwide.

Ironically, when cassettes were introduced by Phillips in 1962, they sound quality was decidedly subpar to records. Manufacturers instead pushed cassettes as a technology in the same field as a transistor radio: it didn't have a high sound quality going for it, but it was more portable than an LP. In the cassette tapes' heyday, the 1980s, boomboxes and Sony Walkmans held sway. Yet as early as 1991, CDs signaled a shift in format. While superior in sound quality, CDs were also portable.

What did cassettes have going for them after that? According to Now & Then Records, an independent music store in Hazlet, N.J., consumers remain fettered to the cassette format, unwilling to let it go. The store specializes in so-called dead formats, stocking its shelves high with records, cassettes, even eight-tracks. Employees there insist that these formats, cassettes in particular, are not dead. Look into most people's homes, and you'll find a stereo that still has a cassette tape deck, maybe even two. People still have the equipment, and until the last cassette player is destroyed, the store will keep selling the format, in order to cater to that specialized costumer. Many are quick to call cassettes "history," and the signs are all there that tapes are just that. Bins of the stuff line flea market and garage sale tables.

It does seem that cassettes have gone the way of the eight track, but as of this writing, they are hanging on stubbornly by a thread, or perhaps by magnetic tape. The "record" industry has pronounced it dead, and slowly consumers are starting to agree. So, take out that big box of cassette tapes from your basement or bottom drawer and get nostalgic. I still have my first music purchase (it was on cassette): Bon Jovi's New Jersey, bought with saved nickels and dimes in 1988 (I was eight, the store is out of business now). Behind the white noise that is the deteriorating magnetic tape is some fond memories.

Catherine Galioto is Features Editor. Contact her at ms.matilda@rockzone.com.

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