Saturday, August 06, 2011

Life In A Metro: Then The Music Stopped

What do you do with the cassettes you've accumulated over the years?

The unique thing about technology is that it can be your best friend and at the same your worst enemy. The realisation dawns upon me, the self-styled nostalgia specialist, every so often, but it hit me rather hard last Sunday when someone I know put up a rather unusual status message on Facebook. He said he was looking for a deserving candidate to take away his impressive collection of music cassettes. I hope he has found someone who understands their worth and preserves them – preserve for what, even I don't know, considering we now live in the digital era.

After reading the status message, I opened my cupboard and looked at my own dust-coated collection of cassettes. There must have been some 500 of them, hiding in the shelves like scared rats. As I ran my fingers through their spines, memories gushed up:

“Ah, this I bought in Kanpur when I was returning home from college that afternoon!”

“And these two I bought in Delhi when I was roaming around Connaught Place with this girlfriend of mine – well, what was her name?”

“Ah, this RD Burman collection was gifted to me by that woman – what's her name – on my 26th birthday. Or was it my 27th birthday?”

“This entire lot was bought at Music World in Spencer Plaza soon after I came to Chennai.”

In a matter of minutes, each of those cassettes had been accounted for – where they were bought, and during what stage of my life. And each of them would have faithfully burst into songs had I chosen to insert them into the cassette player. But why would I do that when the songs they contain are already sitting in the ‘Music' folder of my laptop?

Today you can build an impressive collection of music by spending just one night on the computer. Not only that: you can even carry around those hundreds of songs in a device smaller than your thumb. But that was not the case in 2001, the year I relocated to Chennai, when it required a large bag to accommodate those many songs. The cassette-filled bag turned out to be the heaviest part of my luggage when I said goodbye to Delhi one foggy night and boarded the Tamil Nadu Express. (The collection of books, which would have been heavier than anything else, had been locked up in a trunk and left behind, for the time being, in the care of a friend).

Those days, it would take you years to build a collection of music of your choice. When a particular cassette was available, you wouldn't have the money. When you had the money, the cassette was no longer there – and God alone knew when the collection would hit the market again. You were totally at the mercy of the retailer who, in turn, must have been at the mercy of the whims of the recording company.

And so you built your collection, brick by brick. Simultaneously, you also invested in ‘head cleaners' and in cassette holders, and paid visits to shops that recorded songs of your choice on blank cassettes for two rupees a song. You faced distressing moments when the tape would accidentally get entangled in the pin of the cassette player and you would rush to press the ‘Stop' button and carefully straighten out the numerous coils formed around the pin, making sure your fingertips didn't rub too hard on the magnetic tape. Retrieving an entangled cassette safely from the player was perhaps as challenging – and gratifying – as saving a child from drowning in the swimming pool.

Music, in short, was sweat and blood: you had to earn it and work hard to preserve it. But technology intervened one fine morning. Today, even an 8GB pen drive or iPod can hold more music than you would ever want to listen to in your lifetime. But what do you do with the collection of cassettes you've painstakingly built over the years? Give them away? Doesn't that amount to giving away a chunk of your childhood or youth?

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, August 6, 2011.

7 comments:

Janani Sampath said...

I refused to clear my collection of cassettes.There are some 200 cassettes neatly arranged and wrapped in a cardboard box. I told my folks no way that I am giving it to anyone.

:)

Paresh Palicha said...

My Ma has kept one cassette-player in working condition. So, I get to hear the voice of Jagjit Singh, Ghulam Ali, Pankaj Udhas or favorite songs collected over the years the old way once in a while. :-)

Vijay Narayanan said...

Great post!

Sudeep said...

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us”.

If you know how a tape works, you would also know that tapes continuously lose quality. At one time, maintaining a tape recorder seemed only about dipping a handkerchief in my father’s after-shave and giving the tape head a vigorous rub (and, if the handkerchief was my mothers, also cleaning the roller heads, which left a long light-brown streak). In reality, it is not so trivial. How (and how often) do you de-magnetise the head? How do you see that the roller heads are not misaligned (which causes the tape to entangle), etc., etc.

Tapes are a means, not an end - music is the end. As soon I got the songs I had on tape in digital format, I threw my tapes away. For nostalgia, I prefer looking at my childhood books, rather than listening to bad quality music.

Music is still very much sweat and blood, you still need to earn it and work hard to preserve it. Lots of effort, lots of time, and lots of reading. If you want good music, that it…

Buying an original western music CD almost always guarantees quality, buying an Indian music CD almost never does. So, if you want good quality in Indian music, buying the CD isn’t enough, it is just the start. You need to manually clean the audio – not an easy or a fast job.

If you want a really good music collection (in terms of quality, not just quantity), forget one night even one decade will not be enough. In 2001 (since you mentioned that year), my music collection was already stored in my computer in digital format. Almost every day I spend some time cleaning and sorting out my audio collection – it is still a huge mess.

I have re-done the same song many many times as technology improved, and/or my understanding of technology improved, and/or my audio equipment improved. It is very painful, it is also very satisfying.

Leaving all other factors aside (and there are lots of factors), if you have been listening to your R.D. Burman collection on your computer (computers are very good for storing music, not playing it), I am afraid that you don’t even know what his music actually sounds like (And no, BOSE & SONY are not the answer to listening to very good music).

Anonymous said...

loved this post.

tanuja said...

The distressing moments mentioned in your post is so very reminiscent to my childhood cassette days,how ecstatic you were when you got the precise song cassette that you've been wanting to possess for so many days... the experience is just incomparable to everything that is available in the .com world...great post!!!

Anubhuti said...

But must you hang on to the years gone by, to things that were bit not are, to memories of people whose name you cant recall ??