I’ve been listening to my tapes again

It’s now clear that CDs were a massive backwards move for personal music. My CDs are scratched, my CD players have conked out, one by one. I sit surrounded by dead storage media, while my tapes and tape players play as loud and clear as ever.

The popularity of low quality mp3s reveals the myth of fidelity that helped us buy into the CD hype. As with virtual reality, we let ourselves be fooled into believing that the primary thing that matters is high resolution (kbps, frames per second, pixels per inch, 3D, etc). CDs might have some sound quality edge over tape, but in terms of immersion quality is irrelevant. Fluidity of action drives immersion in VR. With music, the relationship we have to the production and consumption is primary; the history of obtaining, retaining, playing and enjoying.

With music, CDs accelerated us along that path that eroded music-as-object. This creates a vacuum in the emotional life of our music collections. The CD gives you shuffle, destroying the order the higher order of sequencing in favour of the individuality of tracks. You can skip in an instant, removing the distance tapes impose via effort of holding the forward key. CDs are fickle towards their digital memories, all too ready to give up to scratching, skipping or fatal “NO DISC” load failures. Frankly, less than 20 years after I bought my first CD, too many of them don’t f****ing work.

The tapes still work. I recognise my handwriting on the track listing, anticipate the start of each track from the end of the one that invariably came before. Certain artists are forever bound in my memory by accident of being taped onto opposite sites of the same tape. My hand knows the weight of a tape. Somewhere in my motor cortex a dedicated network of neurons store the pattern which allows me to stab STOP/EJECT, slip out a C90, spin it around between thumb and index finger, reinsert, slam shut holder and stab play, all within half a second.

Music-as-objects limits our choices. With a tape, if you want to skip more tracks you have to wait longer for the tape to wind forward. If you want to change your selection you need to stand up and find another tape you want to listen to. If you want to make a mix tape, you’ve only got 45 minutes a side, say, within which to do it.

The tape gives freedom through constraint in a way that is a release for anyone who has sat in front of Spotify, mouse over the search bar, thinking “a million million songs at my fingertips and I can’t think of anything I want to listen to”. Once, I could only listen to the music I had on tape (and a radio, without any pause or replay). Now I can spend 10 minutes listening to the first thirty seconds of 20 songs from a selection wider than the sky. It’s like a music diet consisting entirely of crisps.

Sometimes less is more.

4 replies on “I’ve been listening to my tapes again”

Recorded music is a big part of my life and always has been, so I understand only too well how easy it is to build an emotional link with the technology. It probably also explains why it plays out so differently for different people. Case in point: you and me, apparently.

When I was a teenager, I was happy to dump vinyl and (much later) tapes for CDs. I found their deteriorating sound quality annoying (the vinyls crackled, the tapes hissed…) and the tapes I played most had the annoying habit of breaking at some point. CD’s fixed all that. I haven’t looked back since. I never used (and still don’t use) the shuffle function and I must be better with my CDs than you are because I never ruined one until now (fingers crossed! Remind you not to let you close to my CDs next time you’re at my house!) The only thing I liked tapes for was making mixtapes (somehow it was never the same on CD-R) but I suspect they would have lost their attraction anyway.

My personal beef is, predictably, with the next generation of sound carriers: MP3s and other such formats. They disorient me completely because they dissolve the album format. They don’t work at all for classical music. Or probably I just haven’t figured out how to make them work for me and I don’t have the energy to try. I also dislike having to rely on a technology that I don’t control for my music, but that’s a more political thing. It’s fascinating though how MP3s and file sharing, legal or not, have expanded people’s musical horizons. The obscure music that you read about in a book and then spent a couple of weeks tracing down is right there on Youtube. As a teenager, I used to agonize on what record I would buy that month as my budget was limited – now you can probably download it for nothing somewhere on the net as soon as the idea hits you. Teenage music lovers today know and appreciate so much more, so much faster than we did. I wonder if that goes at the expense of the intensity that something you had difficulty finding can generate.

Anyway, if you’re interested in the (fascinating) impact technology has on the music, I recommend Greg Milner’s “Perfecting Sound Forever”.

Although my (sizeable…) cd collection goes back to the eighties, I still haven’t had any of them dying on me. After reading the article I listened to some of the oldest ones, but everything is fine, apparently. Perhaps European CDs were better made?

I think it’s horses for courses on sound quality – if you care about it, then you’ll notice it and you’re going to prefer CDs, very well kept LPs or flac files.

For me the great thing about my old CDs, tapes and LPs is that they’re artefacts – the sight of the case triggers a memory of the music and a desire to listen to it. The stuff that’s stored away on my capacious hard disks just languishes in digital neverland!

Not that I get much (any!) time to listen to music right now…

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