Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The cassette comes back as art

By Nigel Wrench
BBC Radio 4's PM programme


Remember the cassette? Mix tapes and mangled favourites in the car stereo? It's back. As an art object.

In 1989 Britain was a nation in love with the pre-recorded cassette. We bought 83 million that year. It was the peak of the little plastic music box's popularity.

Twenty years on, you would be forgiven for imagining the format was all but dead. The British Phonographic Institute says just 8,443 were sold in 2009.

But that number hides a new trend. In a digital age artists are turning to the cassette as an intriguing and challenging format - a ready-made frame for sound art.

In London, a tiny label called The Tapeworm has been quietly producing cassette-only releases since last summer, each one limited to 250 copies. Most have sold out.

"We do not view this as a dead format," says The Tapeworm's Philip Marshall. "We do not view this as something which does not have a place right now.

Just sitting back listening to a cassette Walkman on a bus, everyone stares at you [as if you are] a bit strange
Kyle Wright, Tape Fiend

"We were looking for a way to edition music in small runs that was cost effective and would also make the artists we were commissioning think about the 'a' and the 'b'".

He is referring to the 'a' and 'b' sides of the cassette.

"There's a lost art to the 'a' and the 'b'," he says of downloaded music in particular, "a lost art to a sequence of music, a lost art to the album."

A typically leftfield offering comes sound artist Vicki Bennett, who has recorded two elderly women reading from the work of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, complete with instructions to turn the tape over at the end of side one.

"I thought it would be amusing to do an audiobook," she says. "But also the context of the cassette has changed and now it's almost an art form. So I thought I would make a piece of high art on cassette."

Other releases include work by the composer Simon Fisher Turner, best known for his soundtracks to the films of Derek Jarman.

'Neat experience'

"You can make funny noises with cassettes," says Mr Turner, a lifelong cassette enthusiast. "You can do all sorts of things. It's just cute. Kids love them. And not just kids. I'm 55 and I love them."

In the US, cassette racks are returning to some alternative music stores. One music blog lists 101 cassette labels.

Tape Fiend is run by Kyle Wright, and each of his releases is individually numbered like a limited edition art print.

"It's definitely a neat experience listening to a cassette," he says.

The Tapeworm cassette release
One of The Tapeworm's cassette-only releases

"In the day of the iPod, when everyone is listening to crystal clear or supposedly crystal clear music on their headphones, just sitting back listening to a cassette Walkman on a bus, everyone stares at you [as if you are] a bit strange."

Berlin record producer and techno DJ Stefan Goldmann calls the new fascination with the cassette "format fetishism".

"We just take the format and think what makes sense in this particular format, rather than creating the music first and then finding the appropriate format," he says.

Mr Goldmann's Haven't I Seen You Before will be The Tapeworm's 12th release, featuring him playing languid electric guitar, sequenced, looped and designed to pick up seamlessly if you press AutoReverse on a cassette deck or simply turn the tape over.

Vicki Bennett, meanwhile, predicts more to come.

"Next up is the MiniDisc. I think the MiniDisc will return because it was a fantastic editing object.

"It's actually the beginning of a resurgence of older technology in the same way they got rid of vinyl records and now they're are selling more again."

Nigel Wrench's report can be heard on BBC Radio 4's PM at 1700 BST on Tuesday and is available on the programme's website.

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