“Hiss is bliss” became a mantra about a decade ago among music hipsters. I was running a small music magazine and we started receiving new albums from local bands with a strong DIY aesthetic—on cassette. At first, I was confused: why were bands made up of people born in the 90s suddenly promoting their music on cassette, a medium that had almost died out before they were born? It turns out that those bands were ahead of the curve, not behind it.
Cassettes: A History
Introduced in the mid-1960s, cassettes took a little while to catch on. The sound quality was notoriously terrible and it took some time for the portability advantages to become apparent. By the mid-70s, 8-track players were dying out and cassettes were taking over. There was finally a better way to listen to music on the go than the bulky and cumbersome 8-track. It was also possible to record music off the radio with a cassette recorder. Thus, the mix tape was born.
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Cassette sales soared by the 1980s, in no small part because of the proliferation of the Sony Walkman and similar small, portable cassette players—not to mention boomboxes and other personal stereos you could take with you. There was also, of course, the mix tape. With the introduction of dual cassette decks, you could make a mix of all your favorite hits of the day and pop it right into your car stereo. Nothing was more romantic for teenagers in the ’80s and ’90s than carefully crafting a mix tape to present to a boyfriend or girlfriend in an attempt to reveal honest feelings.
Cassettes Died A Slow Death
By the late ’80s, compact discs had arrived on the scene in a big way and they spelled the beginning of the end of the cassette. Almost as portable and with a sound quality far better than tape, CDs quickly became the most popular medium for the music-buying public. Cassettes held on for a while, both because you could still make those awesome mix tapes (CD-Rs were still at least a decade away), and because cassettes didn’t skip in cars and while walking around like CDs did in early portable devices.
The death knell for cassettes came from two sources. First, the introduction of CD-Rs allowed us to quickly copy music from one CD to another while retaining all the digital quality of the original, avoiding degradations that were inherent in copying to analog cassettes. The second reason was mp3s, Napster, and the iPod. The birth of the mp3 player gave everyone everything they would need: portability, reliability, and a seemingly endless supply of music right in your pocket. Mix tapes became playlists and the rest is history.
Hiss, Hipsters, And Starlord
Vinyl sales, which had all but completely dried up in the ’90s, came back with a vengeance in the ’00s. Audiophiles praised the warmth of the analog recording that many felt was lost with the coldness of digital recording and the CD. Tapes, however, didn’t experience the same renaissance. For almost 30 years, CDs continued to outsell cassettes. Now, for the first time in decades, cassettes are outpacing CDs. They still trail far behind vinyl and most people still prefer to stream their music than any of the older mediums, but there is no question that tapes are coming back into vogue 10 years after I first started seeing them appear in our magazine’s mailbox.
They are inferior in sound quality to virtually everything, including mp3s, which, let’s face it, have never been all that great either. As to the portability, well, that hasn’t changed, but lugging around a Caselogic carrier full of 90-minute tapes seems ridiculous when you have millions of hours of music at your fingertips with Spotify or Apple Music. So then what is the appeal.? Pure nostalgia.
The “hiss is bliss” mantra is gaining popularity. It makes Generation X feel like a kid again and allows younger generations to peek into what it was like in the dark ages before the internet allowed us to listen to whatever, whenever we want. Oh, and it probably doesn’t hurt that Peter Quill, aka Starlord, treats his Walkman as his most prized possession in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series.