Saturday, August 19, 2023

Book Review: High Bias

The cassette tape was revolutionary. Cheap, portable, and reusable, this small plastic rectangle changed music history. Make your own tapes! Trade them with friends! Tape over the ones you don't like! The cassette tape upended pop culture, creating movements and uniting communities.

This book charts the journey of the cassette from its invention in the early 1960s to its Walkman-led domination in the 1980s to decline at the birth of compact discs to resurgence among independent music makers. Scorned by the record industry for "killing music," the cassette tape rippled through scenes corporations couldn't control. For so many, tapes meant freedom—to create, to invent, to connect.

Marc Masters introduces readers to the tape artists who thrive underground; concert tapers who trade bootlegs; mixtape makers who send messages with cassettes; tape hunters who rescue forgotten sounds; and today's labels, which reject streaming and sell music on cassette. Their stories celebrate the cassette tape as dangerous, vital, and radical.

High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape will be published on October 3, 2023. The University of North Carolina Press provided an early galley for review.

As a kid of the 70's, I used cassette tapes to record favorite songs off of the radio or to make silly recordings of myself doing "shows" or "broadcasts". In college, I went through a phase of buying a lot of new music on cassette as that was more portable at the time. I used pencils to respool many an unwound tape that the player had tried to eat. So, this topic was instantly fascinating for me.

The images used of various cassette tapes throughout the book really took me back; seeing them will be an instant nostalgia trigger for readers of a certain age. Masters understands their allure, their tactile sensations, their audio idiosyncrasies, and he celebrates all of that here.

This book made me really appreciate the cassette format a lot more. It reminded me of the thought and time that went into making a mix-tape; burning a mix-CD or just creating a mix-playlist are such quicker processes. I also enjoyed hearing about the community aspects of tape trading and the thrill-of-the-hunt aspects of finding new music in this manner from other places in the world.

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