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The Good Listener: Does The World Still Need Cassettes?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the postage-paid crates we'll use to ship home the spring interns is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on cassette tapes and their utility in 2014.

Jennifer Spuehler writes via Facebook: "Will there be a place for cassette tapes in the future? What should I do with cassette tapes — especially those beloved mixtapes — that don't have a place to live anymore?

First, it's important to differentiate between commercially made cassettes — and their even harder-to-store cousins, cassingles — and the homemade mixtapes into which you poured your heart, soul, tears and sad, sticky hormones. When it comes to mixtapes, this depends on your own level of sentimentality, but I don't see any good reason to dispose of such tiny physical manifestations of your personal history. A shoebox full of mixtapes can give your closet just the hint of melancholy it needs! Otherwise, with the right equipment, it's reasonably easy to transfer your homemade tapes to MP3, and I'd strongly recommend doing at least that. Can't hurt, right?

As for commercially made cassettes, I'd have to split my answer between whether there is a future for the medium (yes, to a point) and whether there should be a future for the medium (no, there shouldn't be, sheesh). Next week, a band I love called Horse Feathers will release a limited-edition box set of its three wonderful albums with a bonus set of covers and rarities, and it only exists as a collection of cassettes. It's not the only modern music release to focus on the cassette as its primary means of physical distribution — which, to me, is completely and utterly bonkers.

Why? Because cassettes are, in a word, horrible. To my mind — and please feel free to craft a counterargument in the comments if you think I'm wrong — cassettes offer not a single advantage over other music media. They sound worse. The tape and its casing warp easily when exposed to excessive heat. The tape breaks, or gets wound so tightly that it causes certain players to malfunction. You can't scan easily from track to track, the way you can with CDs, MP3s or even vinyl. They're no more portable than any other format, except vinyl. The cassette boxes are wide and squat in ways that make them extremely difficult to shelve efficiently, and if you've ever had a stack of the damn things slip out of your hand and crash to the floor ... really, need I go on? Cassettes are the worst.

My advice is to upgrade from the accursed medium in any way possible and not look back — and seriously, people, feel free to defend cassettes as vigorously as you'd like in the comments. (If you need inspiration, our own Lars Gotrich gave it his best effort back in 2010.) Once you've made the decision to purge cassettes from your life, do be mindful of what is and isn't in print, whether physically or digitally, because you'll want to hold on to tapes whose music can't be easily or cheaply replaced.

But otherwise? I recommend piling the rest of your cassettes into a heap, setting that heap on fire, feeding the ashes to a large angry animal, feeding that large angry animal to a larger and angrier animal, shooting that animal full of cyanide-tipped arrows, setting the carcass on fire, loading its ashes into a rocket and shooting that rocket into the sun. Or, you know, just recycle them, whatever.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at [email protected] or tweet @allsongs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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