Rant Of The Day THIS RANT 21/08/96

Rant Of The Day is where I get to mouth off about whatever I feel like for however long I like. Theoretically, I'll update my whinge/opinion piece every weekday; in practice, maybe not so often.

The decline of the audio tape

The image you see here is the cover of Duran Duran's 1995 tape, Thank You, which I picked up at Woolworth's Variety for a dollar. Partly, this reflects the relative lack of success the album enjoyed on an international basis, but it also reflects the speedy decline of the audio tape as a medium for recorded music.

It's a change I view with sadness; tape was the first medium I bought a lot of music on, and it formed the backbone of my collection for the whole of the 80s (which, if you hadn't noticed, is the only musical decade that really mattered to me). Much of the 90s has been spent replacing those tapes with the compact disc equivalents, and now, when I go second-hand record shopping, it's vinyl I seek (if only for the bigger covers and the collector value). I reflect a fairly brief period of time when tape really was the predominant way to sell music.

When I first started buying records in earnest in 1982, I bought vinyl, because it was the dominant medium; you could get tapes, but they cost more. Once I started getting serious about music buying, though, I needed a sound system of my own. This need coincided with the emergence of the ghetto blaster and the Walkman, the two technologies that guided tape happily through the 80s. A record player cost heaps and needed a separate amp; a tape deck stood on its own and cost around $140. I bought my first stereo duty-free on a trip to New Caledonia. As tape decks went, it was pretty advanced, and included an auto-search function that could fast forward automatically to the end of a track. I loved that machine, and kept it until the speaker wires fused.

And as I kept it, I bought tapes. The first tape I got for myself was, I think, the Sweet And Sour soundtrack; I have it still. I haunted sales racks in stores, seeking out magnetised bargains. I used my Dad's work's double-deck machine and dubbed my tapes for my friends and their tapes for me. I watched as tape slowly took over from vinyl, which had a number of beneficial effects, not the least being that the covers finally started to be designed with a rectangle in mind and including lyrics and all that kind of stuff. I remember sitting down with my tape collection (alphabetised even then) and sorting the covers according to whether they were properly designed or just had a poor reproduction of the album art surrounded by the title (for an example, click here.

And then, joy of joys, the cassingle arrived in force. I can remember when I'd buy virtually any cassingle, they were so rare; I recall when they had to price them cheaper than the vinyl to convince people to buy them. Suddenly, in 1988/9 they were everywhere. I no longer had to just buy the album, or tape the single. A quarter of my current tape collection is cassingles.

I can also remember the last tape I bought as a serious musical item, in early 1990. It was Shakespear's Sister's Sacred Heart. (Actually, I was given it as a gift, but that's not the point.) Two weeks later, my friend Glenn got a CD player, and I went round to check it out. I knew when I'd used it that I had to get one. It wasn't, at that stage, the sound quality; it was the ability to skip from track to track, play things in random order, be your own DJ with one stop at the console. I started buying CDs even before I had a player. The speaker wires in my old tape deck fused, and it was only last Christmas, when my mother bought me a tape deck, that I could again play my old collection. When I was last in HMV, the tape section took up less space than the magazine rack (although blank tapes were still big business; must be all the Walkmans I see on the train). Now I buy $1 runout tapes in Woolies, just because they're there.

I know the disadvantages of tape; it warps, it buckles, it tears, it hisses, no-one collects them. But it's part of my musical history, and it still bugs me a bit to see it slip from favour so quickly.

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