What’s in a Tape?

You get into you car, turn the ignition on, and the phone automatically connects via Bluetooth. Some music streaming service begins to play out the latest or perhaps the hottest tunes in the country or your city. It’s common place now. A plethora of music streaming services, and an exponentially larger catalog of music to explore with your thumbs. The algorithm is telling you what’s popular – but by now we all know what’s popular is rarely nice and what’s nice is never popular. Good music, like truffles are rare to find. Also, when more people listen to the same music the algorithm is rendering, even a seven year old can figure out what is going to make it to the top of the charts. Sometimes I wonder, how did we get ourselves into this mess.

When Steve Jobs came on stage and touted the release of one hundred songs in your pocket, and iTunes, the digital war against the physical offerings of music – the analog world, was won. In one single swoop, almost all the LPs, the audio cassettes, the CDs were dealt a death blow or so it would seem. I loved visiting these audio cassette shops along with my parents to hunt for the latest releases or vintage ones. They are all shut now – but that’s a story for another day. In the years that followed, almost everyone I knew, myself included made the switch to some form of digital music offering or another. 

Then came the explosion of streaming services and that spelt doom to the entire album. One streamed only those songs that clicked with the masses – though I am yet to understand what that means. Now I don’t have one Compact Disc, or one audio cassette with me. The last bulk of CD-ROMs that I held I gave away to a CD rental probably 6-7 years ago. I was among the herd that would embrace digital minimalism – though now I understand that it had more to do with miming what the latest craze was against what I really wanted to do. So much for minimalism. I forgive myself for what I’ve done. It was wonderful collection, but what’s done is done. 

When I was a kid, or probably until my late teens, I’d listened to music on tapes – the ones formally known as audio casettes. It was the only medium to listen to music because the radio here was mostly regional, playing the news, and offered music rarely – and even when it did, it would be at hours that would mean we were either sleeping or we were out playing, The only convenience then was listening to music on a tape. Occasionally, we used to get the odd mixtape which would feature a bunch of hits from across movies or from different artists – but again, these were so rare I can count them with the fingers on one hand. It was close to a relic. 

These tapes generally featured one album or songs from one movie. The beauty of such a medium to listen to music was not that it belonged only one artist/ movie/ release, it was the continuity of music. The music was enjoyed as a whole, as a sum of parts. Not just the parts themselves. The amalagamation of all the parts rendered this whole piece of art complete. It was as if each track was a brush stroke, listening to one track was meaningless, even pointless; but when you popped in the tape, did a rewind, and pressed the play button and rested on a chair – the artist would take up his easel and paint brush and begin exploring the canvas. By the time the “Play” button made the then ubiquitous “Pop” sound to signal we’d reached the end of the tape, a master piece, or rather the entire painting would be completed. You had seen the entire canvas being filled one stroke after the other. The whole thing now seems similar to how Newton talked about limits in differential calculus, the infinitesimally small rate of change could be felt while listening to the whole tape. It was a continuous function and taking it out apiece was practically impossible. I considered it blasphemy picking out tracks and listening to them. For me Side A and Side B, from the start to the finish, made complete sense.

The beauty for me, from this music stemmed from the fact that it was like a relay – yes, the athletic event where a runner handing over his baton to the next runner in line – each piece handed over the baton to the next effortlessly, beautifully in a rhythmic manner never detracting from the storyline the artist had in mind. The race started with me pressing the “Play” button and ended with the same “Play” button popping off. Sometimes the popping off was one of the saddest sounds – it meant that we’d come to the end of the journey. Listening to these tapes taught me that it was the journey that was always beautiful – not the beginning or the end. The most beautiful and memorable moments happen in between those pops. But then, those pops also meant that I get to explore some other memorable moments too – because, yes, every beginning brings a new end and every end signifies a new beginning. 

Listening to the entire tape brought into focus the narrative of the artist. Peel off all but one track from the album and what do you have? Peel off all the chapters from Lord of the Rings and read only one of them, does it make sense? Will it inspire you? Would one be able to make out what Tolkien was trying to tell us? The whole album contains the story artist is trying to tell us – it doesn’t fit into one track. To listen to the artist, understand his point of view was only possible by listening to the it completely. The artist is screaming – this is my story, this is how I see it! After all, isn’t that the primary point of any art? Looking at it from the artist’s point of view?

So to just get a feel of the good old days, here’s what I do – every Saturday, I pick up one album, at random – probably a recommendation, or something I’d heard when I was a kid, or when a friend mentions it and I listen to it completely. For the past few weeks, I’ve heard some brilliant stuff. A list of everything I’ve heard I’m planning to put up here – soon enough (hopefully). For now, I’ve ditched the playlists. Because, I want the artist’s point of view, not the algorithm’s.

Cover photo by hosein zanbori on Unsplash.

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