My SBP column 1/06/08

Last weekend, a retirement plan of sorts finally came to fruition. For at least two years now, I’ve thought it was time, but I put it off, feeling a variety of emotions: guilt, unease, a worry that the move was premature and I would regret my decision. But on Sunday, something finally snapped.

With a heavy sigh, I packed up my hundreds of now-dusty tapes, detached the wires connecting my heavy black Panasonic twin tape-deck to my monitor and speakers and – after patting the deck down gently with a damp cloth, like a horse that has done good service, but is being put out to pasture – I said my goodbyes.

The twin tape-deck and the boxes of tapes were placed under the stairs, effectively banished to a twilight zone of sleeping-bags, college books, broken lampshades and slightly cracked things destined to be never used again.

I know, I know – I’ve hung on longer to my tape-deck than most people would, those hipsters with their white ear buds, hardly even thinking about the glory of the humble tape. But it’s been difficult, because, to my mind, the vanquishing of the tape-deck signals the death of a particular way of musical life.

Back when I was buying tapes, I was a teenager and it was pocket money I was spending – so every purchase was made with enormous care. There was no possibility of checking out that song on MySpace or YouTube. You just held your breath and hoped and bought.

More important than the bought tapes were the mix tapes, both the ones I made and the ones made for me. Decorated with detailed, hand-made covers, those tapes required intense commitment on the part of the giver: a willingness to sit, sometimes for hours, before the twin tape-deck, like an athlete on the starting blocks. As soon as one song ended and the one you wanted began – snap! – your fingers had to push down on the recording button immediately.

Five minutes later, it was time to locate the next song you wanted and begin the process again. Back then, it was easy to know that someone liked you if they had made you a mix tape. After all, they’d already given you hours and hours of their time, not just three minutes casually flicking through their iTunes library.

These days, via the internet and services like Napster, we’re so privileged to have so much music at our disposal. But for all that we as music listeners have gained it’s important to acknowledge that something has been lost too.

Sometimes it feels like your average music-listener has turned into a husband in a harem with 405 wives to choose from: while there’s a lot of fun to be had, there might not be the same depth and commitment involved that once was present. Ultimately, when music is available so easily and for so little, music itself can become devalued.

Back in the 1990s, I remember an older friend excitedly telling me how he had just driven two hours to Cork city simply to buy the new Lenny Kravitz single – because it wasn’t available in our small record shop in town. You can be sure that, as he drove the two hours home again, he listened to that tune so much it was imprinted on his brain. Now that’s commitment.

And, as I closed the door to the room under the stairs, I realised that it was something about the non-digital world that I would miss.



7 thoughts on “My SBP column 1/06/08

  1. Great article, Tape ruled for years!

    I remember taping a session track cover version of “Everything Under the Sun” off the radio years ago (around ’91). The tape got left on a radiator and it kind of melted a lot of the plastic housing bit resulting in a very grungy looking cassette. The particular part of the tape with the tune remained intact though and it got hundreds of subsequent plays. It’s probably still kicking around somewhere waiting for a late evening in the future.

  2. Thanks!
    I’ve spent plenty of time too over the years trying to put damaged tapes back together…the ones that broke were always the ones that had songs you thought you’d never get again…

  3. I remember my autoreverse Walkman and thinking it was the coolest shit ever created. But if someone had told me that some day a little box – half the size of that precious Walkman – was going to hold every song I own, I’d have told them they were plum crazy hah? I recollect going to my cousin’s house to copy his Nirvana albums onto my little tapes, then carefully write out all the track names and even sketch little Nirvana-type drawings on the covers..(sniff sniff), Actually do you remember the epic discussions you’d have with your friends about which blank tapes were the best to buy? i seem to recall Philips had slim design ones that were fairly snazzy..

  4. We didn’t have record shops in the far flung reaches of Donegal. I used to tape all my songs of the radio, so getting the exact tracks I wanted required patience. Those compilations got played over and over and over, so much so that the sudden entrance of the DJs voice or a jingle that hadn’t been cut out became part of the song. God Bless tapes and the Sony Walkman.

    I seem to recall that C90s were better for albums because you could often fit an album on each side, there was nothing worse than big blank gaps at the end of a tape, wasting your battery playing nothing, or worse, having to fast forward.

  5. The DJ becoming part of the song thing? — yep, had exactly that experience. It used drive me mad that DJs insisted on talking over the intros and outros. As for the C90s, I totally agree — way better:-)
    Adam, I used make individual album covers for pretty much every taped tape I had — still have a few of them around the place. It didn’t deter me in the slightest that my visual arts skills are absolutely non-existent — I was still there in the night-time with the markers and the crayons and the special cardboard when I was supposed to be studying…

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