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Name: Adam Bernard
Home: Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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Lessons To Be Learned From the Excellence of the Cassette Era
Thursday, April 21, 2011

“I let my tape rock ‘til my tape popped.” - Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy.”

It’s an iconic line from an iconic song from one of the most popular rappers of all time. The line, however, is one that probably confuses the current generation of listeners that’s being raised on mp3s, and even the previous generation which has eagerly made the switch to the digital format. These are groups of people who have either never listened to a cassette tape, or if they have, they simply regard it is as a dead format not worthy of their attention. The era of the cassette tape, however, produced albums that are still hailed today for their greatness. Is this a coincidence? The answer to that question is a resounding no. The cassette tape, as a format, forced artists to be better due to its limitations.

Unlike with a record, or a CD, it’s damned near impossible to skip to certain song with a cassette. With vinyl you can fairly easily see where each song starts. With a CD it’s as easy as pressing a button. With a cassette you have to fast forward and rewind until you hit the right spot. Nobody ever did this. It was too much of a pain in the ass. It’s also why so many of our favorite albums are from this era.

Artists knew the limitations of the cassette tape. They knew listeners couldn’t easily skip to a song. This led to artists working harder to create complete albums, because if there were too many songs people didn’t want to hear the tape was going to be thrown into a shoebox, never to be played again.

The track sequencing for most cassette tapes was not what a modern music listener who’s used to downloading a hit single, or only skipping to the songs they’re familiar with, would expect. In the mind of the modern music listener the hit song goes first. With many great albums on cassette, however, the big single would oftentimes be the first song on the B-side of the tape. On Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full the title track is the first song on the B-side. The same goes for LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out, and while “Bring Da Ruckus” was the first song on Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang, “C.R.E.A.M.” wasn’t found until after you were two songs deep into the B-side. Arrested Development had listeners waiting even longer for their biggest hit as “Tennessee” was the next to the last song on 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In The Life Of... So regardless of the album, listeners weren’t getting to the single that drew them to the album until they were at least 20 minutes into their listening experience.

Could you imagine a mainstream artist bold enough to attempt that today? Do you think anyone getting commercial radio airplay would want you to have to listen to a half dozen songs before getting to their single? The vast majority wouldn’t, because we’re now in a single download world that doesn’t hold artistry up as being as important as instant gratification. The fact of the matter is, the majority of the mainstream artists today wouldn’t have stood a chance in the era of the cassette tape. They rush albums to sell singles, and although they sell singles well, their album sales are hitting all time lows because they’re not thinking about the album listener who, in the past, was the main focus because the format dictated it that way.

Underground artists are at a distinct advantage in this regard. By not having mainstream radio airplay, and, for the most part, not having the nation hooked on just one song of theirs, they can affect listeners with a CD, or a complete album download, the way listeners used to be affected by a cassette tape. If people are interested enough to purchase, or download, an album from an underground artist, they’re going to listen to the entire thing. They’re invested for the full hour, or however long the album is, not because they have to be, but because there’s no single that they already have an attachment to. Listeners of underground hip-hop are usually giving themselves a cassette era-like full listening experience.

As Dr. Dre feverishly works on Detox, I hope he remembers that part of the reason The Chronic was so great was that he put together an album knowing we had to listen to it all the way through. If every artist had that in their history, or thought about that when putting their albums together, I think we’d see album sales, as well as the quality in the artistry in what we listen to, increase. Even if the cassette may be dead as a format (although it’s not in my house!), we’d all be better off if artists created albums as if they were going to be released that way.

Story originally ran in the FairfieldWeekly.

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posted by Adam Bernard @ 1:07 PM  
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