The road trip mix tape

The inventor of the audio cassette, Lou Ottens, died this past week. My favorite quote from him captures the revolution that cassettes were, “Everybody could put music in their pocket.”

Growing up, my dad was big into mix tapes. It seemed like for every road trip we took—and there were a lot of them—there was a new mix tape in the car’s glove box (or in the big “tape box” in the back seat). I remember the music on them bouncing between genres. I remember his block lettering on each tape. I remember how some songs seemed as though they’d been recorded over and over, while others seemed crisp and new.

There are three songs I distinctly remember from these tapes (accurately or not is up for debate), Bob Marley “I Shot the Sheriff,” Marty Robbins, “El Paso,” and Metallica, “One.” They might seem disparate on their own, but they play off each other better than you’d think. Each song tells a story, clearly and succinctly (well, mostly, “One” is like a zillion minutes long). Since then, I’ve always associated narrative songwriting with road trips. In fact, I’ve associated any mix tape—aside from the courting mix tape—with driving.

What I didn’t know at the time was just how much of a revolution cassettes were when they came out. Or how much of a legal conundrum they created.

Cassettes were essentially fool proof and incredibly easy to understand at a glance. You put the tape into the player, shut it with a satisfying chonk, then hit play. As it played, you could watch through the window in the tape player as the magnetic tape unraveled from one side to the other. If something went wrong, say the tape snarled, you’d only have to stick a pencil in to fix it.

Of course, tapes didn’t sound great. They warbled and wobbled after a few dozen listens. And they were linear, which meant skipping songs required a delicate timing, one that was entirely dependent on the device you were listening on. One tape player might have required holding the fast-forward button for 10 seconds to skip a three minute song, another might take 30 seconds.

But despite its shortcoming, cassettes did one thing nothing else had done up to this point with standard home audio gear. They made it so just about anyone could record music. You could record your own voice, music from the radio, or music from other sources—including vinyl, other cassettes, and eventually, CDs.

As a kid, I’d call into the local metal radio station—KAZY (RIP)—and request songs so I could capture them on a cassette. At one point, I rigged up my Sega Genesis, and eventually my PlayStation, to my stereo so I could record the music from video games (until at some point when I realized that some PlayStation games included music tracks accessible on a normal CD player).

I’m not going to get into the High Fidelity nature of mix tapes, but there was always a clear difference in creating tapes for yourself, for a friend, a crush, or a stranger (through something like a tape or CD swap, where you’d exchange mixes with strangers to learn about new music). But what your purpose was didn’t matter from a legal standpoint, at least not according to record labels:

The industry views most forms of copying as theft, and it sees little difference between making a mix CD for a friend and copying an entire album to sell on the street.

Frank Creighton, who directs antipiracy efforts for the Recording Industry Association of America, said that money did not have to be involved for copying to be illegal. While mixes on cassette tapes may not have inspired the wrath of the record industry in the past, Mr. Creighton said, digital mixes have better sound quality. And given the proliferation of CD burning for friends and relatives, ”it would be naïve of us to say that we should allow that type of activity,” he said.

Essentially, the record industry didn’t mind when people used cassettes, because they sounded terrible, but CDs? That was wholly different. As though, somehow, audio quality itself was the value.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation—who included John Barlow, a lyricist from the Grateful Dead (a group that notably encouraged fans to share live recordings of its music—has long affirmed that mix tapes/CDs fall under fair use. But the general vibe from the recording industry has always been that it’s illegal.

People were lucky only because the industry doesn’t bother to go after individuals (as an aside here, DJ mixes seem to fall under a different category and sharing music over online services, like Napster or Kazaa, had obvious legal implications with a more 1:all sharing as opposed to a mix tapes less consequential 1:1).

It’s crazy to me that the industry never really dealt with the legal issues in a meaningful way, and instead has clamped down even more on what fair use means. It’s unfortunate that nobody seems to benefit from any of that, certainly not the two groups that matter, the listener and the artist.

In any case, the point of mix tapes was always to share music, either with yourself, so you could make it portable, or with friends. Mix tapes allowed for a particularly revolutionary idea of being able to pull one or two amazing songs off an otherwise abysmal album and give them new life, couched between some of your other favorites. Now we have playlists, which are… fine. They do their job, but they lack the care or craft, which, even putting away the rose-tinted glasses, is easy to see.

Cassettes had a minor renaissance in the 2010s. I haven’t kept up much to know if that little boom has carried on, but it’s easy to understand why they’re attractive to bands in the age of streaming. They’re cheap to reproduce—much cheaper than vinyl (I’m sure things have changed since the early 00s when I last paid for a record release, but even then it was something like $3,000 for 1,000 copies, not including artwork)—and they require more attention from the listener, since you can’t easily skip songs. The last time I listened to a cassette was in my old 1996 Ford Ranger, a truck I gave away 7-8 years ago, and the last time I owned a cassette player of any kind.