Rob Drew’s Unspooled lovingly chronicles the history of the cassette

Rob Drew Unspooled

Growing up in the ’80s, I lived in a house where vinyl and CDs were the preferred media. Well, at least for my dad. We did not touch his music, much less his stereo system. We kids had cassettes that we played on cheap cassette decks—even in the car on road trips. I graduated to compact discs in the ‘90s as soon as I could start paying for them with my babysitting and lawn-mowing money, but I still loved cassettes. All throughout high school and college, I made whole-side copies of albums for myself, my brothers, and my friends for our Walkmans. I also made mixes of my favorite alternative Christian rock songs because our local Christian radio station rarely played anything harder than Petra. I even tried and failed to record my own terrible folk songs on a cheap four-track recorder in my 20s.

Given my personal history with the medium, everything about Unspooled appealed to me in the most visceral ways. Rob Drew tells the story of this small plastic box filled with magnetic tape with warmth and wonder. Subtitled “How the Cassette Made Music Shareable” and published on Duke University Press, it’s a journey across technological innovation, music industry intrigue, and sociocultural reckoning. While primarily focusing on how the cassette shaped the wider world of ‘80s indie rock, the book also spends time discussing the impact on hip-hop and techno. 

Divided into six sharp chapters, Unspooled walks readers through the rich history of music nerds who used cassettes in ever-evolving ways. By following the chronology, Drew provides a detailed exploration of the cassette in terms of format, medium, and artifact. We get chapters on early home taping and tape trading, how small-scale artists probed the frontiers of the technology’s potential, and how underground record labels saved money and resources because of the cassette. From there, the book examines the vinyl vs. cassette debate of the ‘80s, as well as how people used cassettes to share music from the radio and their vinyl collections with friends and fellow fans who didn’t have access to the newest tunes, and the eventual rise of the mixtape as a way to share your thoughts and feelings through music.

Interwoven throughout every positive discussion of how average people made the technology thrive, Drew also recounts the efforts of music industry suits and government officials who worked relentlessly to defeat it. In short, they thought it represented losing money—lots of it. Record companies sent out lobbyists to pursue legislation banning anything remotely related to the cassette: the plastic box itself, decks used for duplication, decks used for creation, what kinds of media could even be recorded onto cassette, and more. Even as cassettes fully entered the mainstream—with new albums from major artists arriving in record stores on vinyl, cassette, and compact disc—our humble plastic hero often got the short shrift in terms of push and availability because certain crowds still saw it as inferior.

Since its invention, it has represented connection, community, and creativity in ways that other mediums could not, especially when it came to cultural outsiders and music obsessives. There’s a reason the mixtape remains a treasured cultural icon. People still use the term interchangeably with “playlist” when assembling their favorite songs on streaming services. But it all started with the cassette. It was a way to spread your own music around the world, a chance to express your feelings using someone else’s words, or an opportunity to trade with fellow music lovers who share that sacred bond.

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