Mixtapes make a comeback: Cassette tapes hold value that is still visible today

It’s visibly old-fashioned. It has two beady eyes staring up at you. It’s roughly as big as a credit card and as thick as a typical 70-page notebook. It has about 45 minutes of stories to tell, and it’s just waiting for you to press play. It’s a cassette tape.

There’s something about timeworn objects that seems fascinating to people. The fact that these rectangular robot-like devices have so much history within them is mysterious, and their modesty is beguiling.

A main embodiment of the cassette tape is the homemade quality of its alter ego: the mixtape. Its rudimentary patched-together format holds narratives of the past that many remember dearly.

“There are some people that are pretty nostalgic about it,” said Dr. Steve Jones, communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “It was a lot of work (to compile), but it was kind of cool to get and share mixtapes with people.”

Although the actual object can be seen as antiquated, the term “mixtape” is now thrown around often to refer to a conglomeration of different objects in one place.

The actual cassette mixtape was big in the 70s and 80s, and trickled down into the 90s.

Joanne Lam, senior in AHS, and Santine Ting Hsueh, junior in the UIC Nursing program both agreed that they haven’t listened to a mixtape since the 90s, and haven’t seen it around much since.

While the college generation of today may remember having used them in their childhood, in many ways they are a dying fad now.

…Or are they?

“I think they’re definitely growing in popularity in certain circles of music,” said Emily Easton, a PhD student in Communications also from UIC. “(Cassettes) have always been very popular among noise and experimental musicians, but now I think they’re finding a greater foothold in punk and rock music.”

Easton has been researching the topic of cassette-only record labels to find out the scoop on this underground blast-from-the-past music medium.

While these record labels aren’t necessarily in the business to make a profit, they strive to bring this alternative and secretive culture back into modern times.

“The cassette is still a physical object,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t as fond of CDs, because … you can throw it away once you go put the music on the computer. A cassette, on the other hand, is something you have to keep.”

The main difference between the present and the past usage of mixtapes is that in previous decades, there were few other options of music sharing. A mixtape would be the only way to share a myriad of songs together in one place — music-sharing websites like Napster, Spotify and Grooveshark didn’t exist back then.

In fact, instead of a predecessor to a CD, as many may associate the mixtape with, it’s ultimately a precursor to these websites, said Jones.

“The whole motivation to make a mixtape was to share music with someone or to put it together within one package that didn’t come that way originally,” he said. “And that, to me, is much more like putting music on a computer and then allowing other people to listen to it.”

It was a common tradition to give a heartfelt and much-thought-out homemade mixtape to your sweetheart as a token of the relationship back then. To this day, there is a website (and a book by Jason Bitner) entitled “Cassette from my Ex” that illustrates different people’s stories about their exes and the mixtapes they still have from them.

“I was an Asian guy with long hair who was into Heavy Metal; she was a Latvian dancer who liked to chain-smoke Camels,” explains one nostalgic contributor to the site.

Along with personal anecdotes, the website and book contributors also list the songs on those mixtapes that they kept for so long. The difference in time and music culture is apparent.

Taking this idea further, the mixtape was not only used for music-sharing purposes — around the

world it was a means to distribute political and religious messages and public ideas.

Mainly in the 80s in developing countries, the purpose of the mixtape was vastly different than in the United States. In the Middle East and South Africa, cassettes were circulated containing these messages.

“There was … a lot of music that was political,” said Jones. “And very often (it was) mixed together, so you might have a couple of Anti-Apartheid songs, followed by a speech from Nelson Mandela, those kinds of things. Or you might have some politically charged Arabic music, followed by readings from the Quran.”

Now, along with the various underground cassette label projects, the tape is beginning to be seen as a pop culture icon. Pictures of cassettes are appearing on clothing, wallets, and even credit cards and iPhone cases nowadays.

“That’s kind of where the nostalgia aspect is coming up,” said Easton. “Not so much in actually using a cassette or playing a cassette or owning a cassette, but evoking the image.”

Whether these sentimental plastic tapes were used as a token of love, as a means of political and social outreach or simply as a cool T-shirt design, their humble and reserved qualities have made them live on quietly.