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Remember the eighties? Those fond memories of driving through neon pink and blue-hued cityscapes saturated by blinking arcades and illuminated shopping malls. Your car is buzzing with electronic synthwave beats playing from your cassette as you move towards the sunset through empty streets.
It sounds familiar, right?
Probably not. But this is what synthwave music would have you remember.
Synthwave is a genre of music that plays with our nostalgia. The genre began in the late noughties and drew its inspiration from films, songs and arcade games from the eighties. Although the music is popular, it is the aesthetic retro look that really drew fans in.
Our journey in synthwave begins with French house musicians from the late noughties. Although no one had heard of the term ‘synthwave’ until a few years later, many French house musicians began creating music inspired by science fiction and horror films from the eighties. For example, Justice, a French electronic duo, sampled the main theme song from Dario Argento’s popular horror film Tenebrae (1982) in ‘Phantom‘ and ‘Phantom II‘.
Similarly, M83, Daft Punk and Kavinsky inspired the genre because of their instrumental music created with synthesisers. Kavinsky’s single ‘Nightcall’ became synonymous with synthwave because of its inclusion in the film Drive (2011). The opening credits blares the electronic synth of ‘Nightcall’ as the viewer watches a skyline illuminated by city lights and Ryan Gosling’s character drive through the quiet streets.
Driving is a consistent theme when listening to synthwave music. Drive brought the genre into mainstream media and drew attention to artists like Kavinsky. However, the music genre originated from OutRun, an 8-bit driving arcade game released in 1986.
You can listen to the game’s soundtrack on YouTube to understand how heavily the music influenced the genre and other artists.
In fact, Out Run‘s soundtrack inspired Kavinsky’s debut album (rightly named) ‘OutRun’, released in 2013. The television show Miami Vice and Dario Argento’s horror films were also influences of the conceptual album. The album pays homage to 1986 because it conceptualises a man crashing his car in 1986 and re-awakening as a zombie in 2006.
Okay, the perfect environment to listen to synthwave music is in the car. But, being in the car is only one part of the equation. Add driving a vehicle with Miami, and you have the perfect setting for listening to synthwave.
Miami Vice is one of the influences for the aesthetic setting of Miami. But, the primary influence is Playstation’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a driving game released in 2002. Funnily enough, the game was based in 1986.
OutRun and GTA: Vice City intertwine music within their gameplay. Both the games offer unique soundtracks built into a car radio simulation. The player could switch between tracks like they are switching between radio stations whilst driving.
The simulated radio station playing modern synth music mixed with driving in a gaming environment began the foundations for the genre’s aesthetic. Gamers feel connected, and even nostalgic, for these digital worlds built on gridlines and a glitched perception of freedom where a new world expands and simultaneously shrinks as you drive through it.
If a film could ideally incorporate the mix between arcade games, driving and synthwave, it would be Tron: Legacy (2011). Daft Punk’s electro soundtrack completes the scenes of digitised motorbikes driving through a cyber, neon and grid-lined world.
Much of synthwave’s attraction to the eighties is due to the decade being a time of new technological possibilities. As a result, many pictures associated with the genre are gaming arcades with glowing screens, colourful plastic cassettes and crackling retro films playing from a VHS tape.
If you have seen Stranger Things, then you can picture the stylised world of the eighties that synthwave tried to paint. Many of the show’s scenes include arcade games, pink and blue neon colours, and squeaky clean empty shopping malls with grid lined floors. Even the theme song of Stranger Things has electronic disco music associated with synthwave.
The consistent theme of cars, shopping and gaming, satirises the capitalist dream projected on ’80s America. The nostalgic dreamscape painted over YouTube videos, and album artwork of synthwave songs shows how idealised the eighties technology, capitalist and pop cultures was.
Did you love to listen to synth music in the eighties? Have your music collection digitised with a cassette to CD service like Digital Converters, and listen to all your favourite artists again.
Welcome to the Eighties! The transition from legacy media to digital technology is beginning, and within this strange decade of mixed medium comes the rise and fall of the audio cassette magazine.
Audio cassette magazines (or ‘tapezines’) were an experimental journalist platform used to promote a music niche generally not promoted by mainstream platforms. They combined songs, news and interviews with artists and sounded much like podcasts released today. The trend began around 1981 across America, Australia, and the UK. However, the cassettes never lasted longer than a couple of years, with only one audio magazine in Manhattan outlasting the market by ten years.
Each of the magazines focused on a particular music genre or geographical location producing music.
The founding cassette magazine, Fast Forward, focused on post-punk music based on the creators’ passion and knowledge of the Punk genre beginning in the ’70s. The tapezine was available worldwide for music lovers to learn about Australia’s post-punk music. The magazine gained attraction in America, particularly by Bruce Pavitt, the founder of Sub-Pop. Inspired by Fast Forward, Pavitt created cassette compilations to accompany his magazine, promoting undiscovered talent from Pacific Northwest.
On the other side of America, a new challenge against mainstream radio began. Tell Us cassette magazine was an art project documenting New York’s downtown music. The cassette spliced together spoken word, music, and performance pieces with a visual accompaniment. It favoured avant-garde and no wave music, experimenting with different genres of sound. Tell Us’ fluidity with sound and art gave the magazine a longer lease of life, lasting for ten years before the project ended in 1993.
Unlike America and Australia’s underground music promotion, UK’s SFX Cassette Magazine was inspired by MTV’s promotion of New Wave music. An experiment in music journalism created by Hugh Salmon and Max Bell, SFX was advertised as the first audio cassette magazine ever published. However, Fast Forward had defeated SFX to the punch a year earlier.
The benefit of producing cassette magazines was the freedom to experiment with editing spoken word with music. The manual splicing and combining of interviews with sound gave a new found freedom in promoting music compared to printed press.
Bruce Milne from Fast Forward explained that he wanted to create a medium for promoting new music not restricted by the number of adjectives in the English language.
“I’d spent a number of years writing about music and you definitely get to the point when you’re writing about music that this is ridiculous, I’m trying to describe something, and I’ve sort of run out of adjectives.” – Bruce Milne, One of the two founders of Fast Forward
Likewise, radio stations had restricting guidelines on what music was appropriate to play. This meant DJ’s had to discard other lesser-known musicians who did not fit the genre. The cassette magazine combines the two forms with the freedom to play songs not advertised in mainstream media.
Plus, cassette tapes were cheap to buy!
Fast Forward managed to buy their cassettes cheaply by recycling erased pre-recorded tapes and repackaging them. Similarly, Sub Pop’s cassette compilations were said to be worth making as long as they sold 200 copies. After completing three unique cassette compilation magazines, Sub Pop decided to use cassettes to supplement their printed magazine.
However, copyright laws and the creators’ limited access to music restricted tapezines production. SFX had to fight for their right to play 20 to 30 seconds of a song by persuading the Performing Rights Society that previewing music is an excellent way to sell music.
Likewise, Bruce Milne and Andrew Maine from Fast Forward used their radio show to find and access music to play on their cassette magazine. These mainly consisted of cassette or reel to reel demos sent in by independent musicians.
Both magazines struggled to avoid record labels paranoia around home taping destroying music. The creators of Fast Forward learnt a lot about copyright infringement and avoid playing music from large record labels. Meanwhile, before SFX even hit the shops, it was under criticism for using re-useable tapes because it might encourage home taping of music. Hugh Salmon disputed the criticism insisting that listeners would view the tape as a collectable.
Salmon was right to dispute the criticism. The success of SFX led to one of the most famous interviews with Paul McCartney that now sells for profit on eBay. The recorded conversation was the first time McCartney openly talked about the murder of John Lennon. However, SFX’s reign quickly ended after only 19 issues due to the high production costs. Most likely due to their focus on mainstream New Wave music.
Sadly, the novelty of tapezine quickly wore off as mainstream printed magazines began using cassettes to promote new music. NME created a collection of cassette compilation albums to accompany their magazine. Their most famous compilation album released in 1986 (simply named C68) had huge success. But, it marked the beginning of the end to mixtape culture and sharing independent music via cassette tapes.
At the same time, publishing music magazines on cassettes began to feel limited compared to the popularity of MTV. Cassette tapes poor audio quality caused interviews and music to be challenging to listen to. It had nothing on the visual captivation and audio clarity offered by music channels on TV.
Although MTV and copyright laws brought the downfall of the tapezine, these magazines have left a mark in music journalism. Today, Tape magazines are collectable items holding a slice of authentic music history from the ’80s.
If you’ve been buying albums recently, you may have been confused as to why bands are now offering cassette tapes. Cassette tapes are making a comeback and it is time to embrace it!
In a trend that has flummoxed the nation, cassette tapes have had a 103% sale increase in 2020 compared to 2019 (according to The Official Chart Company). It is a similar trend seen by vinyl records which have now surpassed CD sales in the US this year. Physical copies of records are becoming more popular than downloads. But, it begs the question why someone would choose a cassette rather than CD or vinyl. When comparing the cassette tape to CD format, there are many reasons not to buy a tape: the poor audio quality; the smaller file space and let us not forget the faff of having to switch sides! Perhaps it is because they are cheap to make. Yet, if you are an upcoming band, I can’t imagine releasing music on a cassette would increase your popularity.
Some music companies (NME, Official Charts, Billboards) have suggested that the new trend for cassette tapes is because many fans enjoy collecting physical copies to display in their homes. Cassettes have become a music fan’s commodity. And, since they are so cheap, it is an easy option for fans who cannot afford the expense of vinyl.
Recently, to tackle the competition between cassette to digital formats bands have released their music on cassette and advertised them as a collectible. For instance, Glass Animals have released four cassettes for their new album with different artwork on each one. To entice their fans, they liaised with record stores and offered fans tickets to a limited release concert if they pre-ordered a CD, vinyl or cassette. The cassette being the cheapest option for fans to access these tickets. An easy way to persuade loyal fans to buy physical copies of their music.
What is fascinating about the rise in cassette sales is that it is mainly under-25’s who are buying them! After the release of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 (which based their soundtrack off a mixtape saved on a cassette) the sale of cassettes began to rise and a trend began to set. A pursuit of films and television series followed (Stranger Things, Baby Driver, 13 Reasons Why to name a few) which defined their setting through the legendary audio tape. There is a nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s – and perhaps, a novelty for those who never owned a tape.
Well, if you are in possession of cassettes now would be the optimum time to rekindle your love for them! Since cassettes are now a collectible, you might be in possession of a rare tape which will sell for a small fortune. Although it is the aesthetic of a cassette attracting people into the market, the crackling audio has a charm to it as well. Transferring your audio tape to CD or download file will give you the option to listen to the music without needing a cassette player and give you the chance to relive your favourite albums in the car again.
At Digital Converters, we offer a premium cassette to CD service to help make transferring music into digital formats easier for you. This service is particularly handy if you are wanting to listen to and share old recordings you made before the new millennium. Now is the time to pull out your tapes and revive all those recordings you saved – follow this link to get started.