Fall in love with Cassettes again

Music lovers like you and I, are strange creatures.

One minute were playing in the sand pit of life, enjoying the innocence of childhood, throwing snowballs, squashing beetles and wondering what all the fuss is about. Then, when we least expect it, as if being flattened by a planet crashing against our tiny world we discover an actual, real life, living, breathing artist. I mean a band, a singer, a guitarist - sometimes even all three at once. Then we discover that there's even a  drummer who is a megalomaniac/pyromaniac/psycho (Delete as appropriate) who bites heads off chickens and other deliciously exotic (and very irregular) pastimes.

We are hooked on music.

These first forays into what has now become, after several listens of their first/latest/most commercial (delete as appropriate) album - music lovers like you and I are often turned into ... Collectors.
Yes, Collectors (with a capital "C"). Some might say hoarders, others, often friends, just roll their eyes and yet even more so-called "friends" will disown us for wasting our first meagre salary on some or other physical medium, previously known as "music" - now being proudly referred to as a "collection"

I remember back in the day when I had row after row of Cassette tapes around the bedroom how brilliant it felt to have all this "stuff".
I was later, however, to swear blind that vinyl was the defacto medium for actually listening to music, and later still .. well ... let's try not to mention the CD. At least not in this post.

Today, as I write this, the humble cassette tape that we all fell in and out of love with back then, that we dumped in a cardboard box, and left forgotten in an attic somewhere is waiting to get back in our lives and once again inhabit a visual space - somewhere between the battered boxes of 45's and the rows of unread paperbacks.

Only this time it's different - it has to be different. Just like we'd accidentally bumped into our first girlfriend some 20 years later - it's just the same. I mean we do recognise them, in a funny way but the equipment has changed and we've discovered we've got nothing to play them on.

Image result for cassette tape

Collecting Cassette Tapes can be rewarding, but it has to be born in mind that very few "new" tapes are being released. They tend to be niche items, even gimmicks or throwaways - this may of course change as the popularity of the medium gathers pace, but essentially its a retro occupation - a study of the heyday of the cassette tape from the mid 70's to the late 90's with the real boom for the format coinciding with the phenomenon known as Britpop here in the UK during the 90's.

Also, there are very few bibles on the value of Cassette tapes in existence. I mean, I have yet to find one single definitive guide to values such as there is with Vinyl records, for which there are many publications to help the collector value his or her precious artefacts. With Cassettes being 98% secondhand - it's a wet finger in the air when it comes to valuation.

So we live in an unusual world when it comes to Cassettes. My only advice to the collector regarding value is choose your items carefully. Don't think that just because an item is for sale at £20, that that is the actual value. Ask yourself what is the value to you, the collector. Have you seen many more similar for sale?
Be patient.
Remember - the seller will also not have access to a definitive valuation for the reasons stated above. It's the sellers best guess. If there are no other similar items for sale at a lower price - ask the seller if he'll accept offers. Don't be afraid to haggle. I do it all the time.
Be patient.
Use the full breadth of the Internet to search for Cassettes for sale. E-Bay may be the biggest market place, but there are others. Do some research.

So, what about sound quality?
Well - a standard Dolby normalised Cassette will never compete with Vinyl or digital for sound quality. Other cassettes, such as "Super-Ferro" or "Chrome Dioxide" or those marked "Hx Pro" will improve the situation somewhat, but still fall short of the fidelity of a vinyl record.
High Fidelity is not a reason to collect Cassette tapes.
Satisfy yourself with the "cool" factor when your friends come round and look suitably astonished to discover your rows of little plastic boxes with names of bands and albums on that they actually know - even though they've only heard about the Cassette because they think their parents had some at some point, or at least that was the myth.

When buying a Cassette, consider the following:
Body Text
With constant use, many cassette tapes that have printing directly on the body of the cassette, especially the transparent type (which became prevalent in the 90's) are prone to having the print rubbed away - either partially of fully. If the body text is crisp and clear, you can be sure it's been well looked after.
Paper Labels
Early cassette tapes only came with paper labels. These can show signs of "bubbling" or lifting, or may have become dirty with over-handling. Similar to the comments about on-body printing above - avoid paying top dollar for a cassette with damaged or worn paper labels.
Insert or Inlay
These take the form of J-Flap or U-Flap, where the U-flap is a fold over portion that covers the whole side of the tape when viewed from the back. The J-Flap only covers the return shelf at the back of the cassette.
They are prone to being ripped or torn, or just overly worn out through constant removing and replacing of the cassette. This removal/replacement action can also lead to damage at the edge of the J-Flap. Again, avoid buying tapes that exhibit extensive damage to the Insert - it is evidence to the fact that maybe the tape has had a hard life.
Tapes generally are pretty robust - by this I mean the plastic outer case, although definitely avoid any tape that has a cracked shell. Also check for the existence of the small felt pad at the centre of the tape, underneath the tape medium as it moves across the bottom opening of the body.

Sound Quality
Most times you will not be able to check the sound quality for yourself at the point of purchase, especially if buying online, but always ask the seller if you are unsure, whether the sound quality has been checked. One of the main drawbacks of a Cassette over other recorded media, is that the only way to check for bad portions of tape, sound dropouts, creasing - or other damage that affects the sound quality - is to actually play the tape from beginning to end, and on both sides. Contrast this with a visual check for a Vinyl record that only needs a decent light source.

Finally, let me return to Cassette prices.
If you collect a specific artist, you are likely to quickly exhaust the possibilities of picking up cheap Cassettes - the ones that are readily available, particularly from your "resident" country will be snapped up in the first few weeks of collecting. As you get into the more esoteric Cassette releases for your favourite artist, the prices will definitely rise as the rarity factor kicks in. This is no different to collecting any other format. Even so, take my advice and don't throw money away on Cassettes that appear to be rare or hard to find.
For example, a seller may classify an unofficial release (say from Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia) as "rare". This is generally not the case. These cassettes were churned out in their thousands and should not be significantly higher in value than the domestic ones. They tend to be collectable, if only for their strange cover pictures or graphics. I have found the (sound) quality of most of these unofficial releases to be at least as good as their official counterparts, although don't expect any to be the higher quality Chrome-Dioxide tape or similar.
If you are interested in a general selection of artists, or a specific style of music, your collecting options are greatly increased, and E-Bay is your friend when it comes to picking up "job lots" of tapes for reasonable prices.
For those of us who use the excellent Discogs site for buying and selling - still take similar precautions as outlined above. Generally the sellers are music lovers like yourself - but they can often over-inflate the value of an item - steer clear of sellers whose prices seem to be from a different galaxy!
The last thing to remember about Cassette tapes is that the pool is not getting any bigger. There is a finite number of Cassette tapes out there and very few new ones are being produced. If you must have that elusive copy of your favourite album on tape - strike soon while prices are reasonable.

So what is the future for Cassette tapes? Only time will tell. The more people that are buying Cassettes in the secondhand market can only be good. One day the record companies will sit up and take notice if they think there's money to be made, and start producing Cassette tapes again.

Until then, clear some shelf space and get searching. You may not have any equipment to play them on, but when has that ever stopped a collector? I find myself repeating my opening remarks:

Music lovers like you and I are strange creatures.

Further reading / research
Discogs A friendly Market Place for buying and selling
Cassette Store Day Similar to Record Store Day - check it out
Rolling Stone Magazine Article Why the Cassette tape is not dead
WALTZ Cassettes A really cool store in Tokyo specialising in Cassette Tapes

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