Book Review: Unspooled: How the Cassette Made Music Shareable by Rob Drew

A Retro Revolution: The Enduring Legacy of the Cassette Tape

In his compelling book, Unspooled: How the Cassette Made Music Shareable, Rob Drew delves into the fascinating history of the analog cassette tape, an artifact that stubbornly persists well into the new millennium. Despite newer and more convenient digital formats, the humble cassette tape continues to make a surprising comeback, captivating both nostalgic enthusiasts and modern hipsters alike.

The Rise from Obscurity

Drew begins by tracing the cassette tape’s origins from its early days in office dictation machines and cheap portable players. Initially dismissed as a lowly, hissy format, the cassette tape’s evolution is nothing short of remarkable. As it clawed its way back from near obsolescence, the cassette became a symbol of intimate expression through music and a significant source of cultural capital. This transformation is vividly chronicled in Unspooled, illustrating how a once-overlooked medium found its place in the heart of music lovers.

Cultural Capital and Intimate Expression

Unspooled takes readers on a journey through various phases of the cassette’s history, drawing on eclectic sources ranging from obscure music zines to transcripts of Congressional hearings. In the early 1980s, music industry representatives argued passionately that the cassette encouraged piracy, posing a threat to the industry’s profitability. Yet, at the same time, the burgeoning indie rock culture embraced the cassette as a symbol of its outsider status. For indie musicians and fans, the cassette was more than just a medium—it was a statement of identity and community.

The Mixtape Phenomenon

One of the book’s most engaging sections explores the phenomenon of the mixtape. In the 1980s, the mixtape became the ultimate manifestation of indie rock’s gift economy, where music sharing was seen as an act of personal and artistic expression. The mixtape allowed individuals to curate personalized music experiences for friends and loved ones, fostering a sense of connection and intimacy that transcended commercial transactions.

A Symbol of Resistance and Rebellion

Drew’s examination of the cassette tape highlights its role as a tool of resistance and rebellion. By embracing the cassette, indie musicians and fans defied the mainstream music industry’s norms and practices. This love affair with the cassette tape culminated in a unique culture of independent music recording, re-recording, and gifting, which Drew argues initiated rituals of communication that were deeply meaningful and transformative.

Conclusion

In Unspooled: How the Cassette Made Music Shareable, Rob Drew presents a richly detailed account of the cassette’s long and winding history. The book not only chronicles the technical and cultural evolution of this analog medium but also celebrates its enduring impact on music sharing and community building. By telling the story of the cassette, Drew demonstrates that this once-humble format continues to inspire and influence music lovers and creators around the world.

For anyone interested in the intersections of music, culture, and technology, Unspooled is a must-read. It offers a fresh perspective on the seemingly archaic cassette tape, revealing its lasting significance in the digital age.

You can purchase Unspooled: How the Cassette Made Music Shareable on Amazon.


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dabodab is best described as a blog about various things DiY. Music, zines, graphic arts, print, crafts, publishing, local and personal history, business, app development and AI. I am Briyan Frederick (aka Bryan Baker), probably best known as the publisher of GAJOOB and a founder of Tapegerm Collective read more.

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