In the early-to-mid aughts, the internet was still burgeoning and to the youth of the time — myself included — it seemed as if every day it offered us some new, cool, ultra-convenient way to reinvent the wheel. From listening to music to watching movies to exchanging goods, it was the beginning of a digital revolution, and all of the in-crowd cool kids were tossing out their CD collections in favour of the ethereal allure of a plethora of digital-only options like iTunes, Netflix and Facebook.
Back then, talking points about obsolescence were ripe in the cultural discourse. There was simply no room in our shiny new Silicon Valley utopia for outdated relics like record players or cassette tapes. Soon, digital streaming would do away with movie stores, social media would be the end of phone calls and file-sharing would spell the demise of the brick-and-mortar record store.
Or so we were told.
Richard Liukko, of Edmonton’s Freecloud Records, owns one of those record stores that was supposed to be obsolete by now. It’s your quint-essential counter-cultural hub with record sleeves adorning most of the walls and cassette tapes, CDs and vinyl lined up by the hundreds in the hallways.
Liukko’s been involved with Freecloud — whether as a customer, employee or, since ’92, owner — from about 1985 onward. That’s long enough to have seen many trends — and competitors — come and go. But it was recently, in just the last half- decade or so, that he noticed a different trend beginning to emerge.
“Post COVID-19 we did a big restock [of cassette tapes] and, since then, we’ve seen a constant stream of people coming in to pick up. Mostly teens up to the 30s,” he tells me. “It’s pretty neat. Especially when you see that teenager coming in and they’ve just bought a Walkman. I’m always like, ‘What?’”
One of those people is Chloe Jenkins, a 16-year-old student with long, black braided hair and baggy pants. Jenkins collects vinyl and cassettes and so do her friends, Mati Sykes and Joel Mitchell. Scraggly, punk teenagers probably aren’t the first people that come to mind when you think of who might be hoarding a secret VHS stash or own a stack of records, but Jenkins says many people her age are interested in the stuff.
“I don’t know what it is. Maybe we’re just getting tired of the digital stuff,” Jenkins says. “It’s around us all the time. Everyone has their phone, and everything is part of that digital realm.”
Sykes, for her part, sees it as a typical form of rebellion — a way to push back against a larger narrative that stereotypes her entire generation as a group of digital natives too obsessed with their phones.
“Being stereotyped as being super into digital makes us not want to be that,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re always on your phone all the time’ and that makes you want to do things differently, like use a disposable camera.”
That type of rebellion — that comes so naturally to people Sykes and Jenkins’s ages — makes perfect sense. It’s what teenagers do. For generations, young people have been at the vanguard of rejecting the status quo and for generations that’s meant adopting new and sometimes questionable technology as a way to differentiate yourselves. But, for Sykes and Jenkins, and the rest of the digital natives, the status quo has always been to be online first and in the real world second. Logging off, at least in part, is the perfect way to challenge that.
And those small acts of rebellion have real-world ramifications. Together with Mitchell, Sykes and Jenkins are actively participating in another form of neo-luddism: flyer making. Dubbing themselves Project 23 (after a school project benefit show the kids put on from — you guessed it — 2023), the group has partnered with established promoters like Tyson Boyd of the Starlite Room, and created hand-drawn promo posters and handbills for all-ages shows they distribute themselves.
For Boyd, whose been in the live music business for nearly two decades, the DIY, back-to-basics ethic employed by the young trio is something he’s seeing come back in a big way among the city’s youth.
“We’re having kids showing up to concerts with wind-up disposable cameras now. They’re just wanting these analog approaches,” Boyd says. “A lot of people over the pandemic spent way too much time online and I think the negative effects of that has them wanting to go out and gain real experiences … and having something in hand goes part and parcel with that.”
That desire for IRL over online is changing the approach that people like Boyd are taking when it comes to appealing to a new generation of concert-goers. He says sluggish engagement with online promotions has prompted his venues to focus their efforts towards more street-oriented methods, like the postering the kids do.
“We’re finding handbills and posters to be more effective once again,” he says. “Whatever is happening — whether people are tuning out or whether it’s the algorithms that are making [marketing] a bit more restrictive — we’re kind of returning to a more grass-roots approach in general.”
So, analog is making a comeback? You bet. Chances are, if you’re over 35, you remember the mixtape — taking a fresh Maxell or TDK cassette, mixing some of your favourite songs, and then playing it back in your Walkman, in your car’s cassette player or in the boom box.
It was also the way that you declared your crush for someone — you made that person a “mixtape.” It was like baring your soul, each song filled with some sort of secret message that you hoped would be well received. Making a mixtape was way more powerful than roses, more personal than jewels.
And is it making a comeback? We can only hope. If, years ago, you tossed out old Maxell or TDK tapes that were still in the wrapper, you might want to put down the magazine.
Here are some eBay auction numbers:
Five-pack of TDK SA-XG 90 Type II cassettes: $574 CDN
Single Maxell MX 60 Metaxial Metal Bias Type IV cassette: $67 CDN
Single BASF TPII Reference Maxima Position High 20: $105 CDN