It is hard to imagine now what a revelation recorded sound must have been to those who heard it in the beginning of the 20th century. After millennia of music existing only in the moment that it was performed, for the first time, people could play their favorite performances at will, with no musicians present.
The invention of the consumer cassette tape in the early 1960s and its subsequent incorporation as a mainstream recording format throughout the 1970s and 80s represented another shift in the way people gather, share, and listen to the music they love. Unlike records in which the sound is literally carved into the album’s surface, the magnetic tape inside a cassette is reusable. Blank tapes—cassettes sold with no music on them—and home-use tape recorders brought an element of the recording studio and record plant into the average American household. For the first time, people could record songs from the radio or act as their own DJs by making mixtapes of songs from different sources. They could record the live performance of a band, and then make copies for friends. Suddenly, the consumer could play the roles of engineer, producer, even distributor - and all that was needed was a blank cassette tape and a home tape recorder.
This lesson explores the possibilities created by the new technology of cassettes and how people made use of them. In many ways, the digital future and its interactive possibilities were prefigured by the cassette era. By viewing and discussing clips from Soundbreaking Episode Eight, students learn how the Grateful Dead allowed their fans to tape their concerts and freely trade cassettes of their recordings, a move that helped establish the group as innovators in how bands cultivate relationships with their fanbase. Students will also consider how the cassette allowed individuals to express themselves through the selection, sequencing and re-packaging of commercially released music. In the last part of the lesson, they will look at the Sony Walkman and related devices, the first portable cassette players that led toward the current age of iPods, MP3 players, and other forms of personal digital listening devices, exploring a period in which the boundaries between consumer, producer, fan and participant began to erode, allowing even the casual music fan a degree of access to the creative process.
How did the cassette tape change the audience’s experience by allowing the listener to record, compile and disseminate music?
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- How the technology of the cassette enabled consumer participation in areas previously associated with music production
- How the cassette created new possibilities for music dissemination and how bands such as the Grateful Dead capitalized on these possibilities
- How the mixtape provided a creative outlet for personal expression in the pre-digital era
- How the personal portable cassette player changed the ways in which people related to music
- How the personal portable cassette player drove the movement toward private listening and personal music environments that we still see today
- Be able to (skills):
- Evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and musically, as well as in words
- Analyze the effects of technological advancement on popular culture and art
- Examine visual texts for information, point of view and argument
- Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
The New Possibilities of the Cassette - Video
The Grateful Dead and Tape Trading - Video
Cassette "Bootlegs" and the Grateful Dead - Video
Mixtapes - Video
The Walkman - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
Display Slide 1, a record, and Slide 2, a cassette tape. Make a T Chart on the board on which the left side represents the record and the right side represents the cassette tape. Ask your students the following, keeping track of the answers on the chart:
- Can you play this in a car?
- Can you buy a blank version of this?
- Can you combine recordings from various sources to make a mix on this?
- Can you record the radio on to this?
- If you were going to a friend’s house and want to bring music, could this fit in your pocket?
- Could you play this while jogging?
- What do you think happens if you drop this?
- Display Slide 3, “Vinyl Cutting Lathe” and tell your students it is the machine used to “cut” a record. It made one record at a time, and if the operator made a mistake, the record was ruined and discarded. Ask your students:
- Where do you think record lathes were found? (Encourage students to recognize that they were only in professional production facilities.)
- Do you think the record lathe was a technology that the average music consumer had access to?
- Do you think this lathe was something someone could learn to operate quickly?
- Do you think the lathe was a tool with which the average person could express him or herself?
- Do you think this machine was affordable to most people?
- Who do you think this advertisement is suggesting could use this machine?
- Does this machine look like it would be hard to use?
- Where do you think you could use this machine?
- In what ways does this advertisement suggest that this machine might be fun to use?
- Do you think this machine was affordable and accessible to many people?
- What are the key contrasts to vinyl records mentioned here?
- What do people say they did with cassettes?
- In what ways does Dave Grohl suggest that the cassette allowed he and his friends to feel more personally connected to the music they loved as kids?
- Why does Mickey Hart suggest the Grateful Dead decided to allow taping at their shows?
- In what ways do you think an army of tapers who distribute the band’s music for free could help them gain popularity?
- Why do you think someone would want to do the work required to record a band and distribute the music with no chance of personal financial reward? (Encourage your students to consider how a fan becomes involved through taping and, almost like a stockholder, feels invested in the success of the music she or he loves. The tape trader becomes part of a community striving to achieve similar goals.)
- What do you think it might mean to gain social currency for having a collection of Grateful Dead tapes? Can you think of any other types of collections that might be similar?
- Judging by what you’ve just heard in this clip, in what ways do you think the Grateful Dead inspired people to want to hear recordings of so many of their concerts? (Encourage your students to consider the Grateful Dead as inspiring FOMO, or the Fear of Missing Out. Because every night was different, every night was also a chance for something to happen that had never happened before.)
- In what ways do you think the cassette helped the Grateful Dead reach and empower fans in a way that would not have been possible on the radio or through albums?
- It is suggested that the Grateful Dead is the most recorded band in history, in what ways do you think this has helped them engage fans? (Encourage your students to consider how they hear a fan talking about shows by date, and those shows are ranging across decades. The cassette has helped people embrace not just their songs, but to think of the group as a living, changing entity with different yet connected identities throughout their career.)
- In what ways do you think cassette tapes may have offered a creative outlet for users?
- What is different about these tapes than the official releases of albums one could have purchased at music stores during the same time period?
- Ask each group to go through the first four steps for the class, explaining why they made their decisions.
- Ask each group to say something that was hard about the idea of the mixtape.
- Ask each group to say something that was fun that they hadn’t considered.
- Ask the class whether they think they would make mixtapes for friends if the technology was still in use and if they have anything similar that has replaced it today.
- How is a mixtape like a love letter?
- If someone made you a mixtape, and you wanted to listen to it privately, how would you do it?
- What was so significant about the development of the Walkman?
- What current technology do you think it prefigured? Why?
- How has the portable cassette player changed this environment?
- What do you think each person is listening to? (Allow students to have fun guessing, as much as it's impossible to know.)
- In what ways do you think both the mixtape and the portable personal cassette player changed the way people listened to music in the 1970s and 1980s? (Encourage your students to discuss the shift from open, shared music environments to closed, headphone-based personal music environments in which the listener has complete control of the content.)
Ask your students:
- Overall, how do you think the introduction of the cassette tape changed the way people interact with music?
- In what ways do you think some of the new ways of interacting with music enabled by the cassette are reflected in how you listen to music today?
The cassette brought on another revolution: that of home multitrack recording. Starting in the late seventies, companies like Tascam were creating small, consumer devices that could record four tracks, later even eight tracks, onto a cassette’s magnetic tape. This meant that what an artist once needed a professional studio for, multitrack recording, could now be done at home.
The introduction of the cassette multitrack recorder did not put the commercial recording studios out of business. But it did initiate changes that would, by the digital era, make the home studio the dominant location for record production.
In this exercise, have students research Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska and write a brief two-page paper on their findings. These papers should answer the following questions:
- What recording device did Bruce Springsteen use to record Nebraska?
- How did the Nebraska project begin?
- What were Springsteen’s frustrations as he tried to re-record the original Nebraska demo recordings?
- Why did Springsteen make the choices he did in choosing what to release as the final version of Nebraska?
- What is the mood of Nebraska, and how did the technology used help to create that mood? How did the places Springsteen recorded in affect that mood?
- For artists today, is there a technology that allows them to record wherever they want? Why might they want that? What did the example of Nebraska teach recording musicians?
Photo Credits: Mark A. Rodriguez