This is a series of stories inspired by background music. My clearest memories are often tied to the music playing nearby. Like mile markers or souvenirs from a road trip, there are songs that point directly to certain moments. Life is a highway and these are the loudest billboards.
Sometime after the years when home taping, LiveWire and Napster all killed music, recording to cassette was still the best free way I knew to find new music. Reasonable internet connection was still a legend to be told around campfires. Our TV was too close to my parent’s bedroom to be a sensible late-night entertainment option. But, the radio was something I could do in secret. No one would wake up if I kept my headphones on. I discovered music through late night Midwestern radio.
This is a rural field guide to pirating Nine In The Afternoon by Panic! At the Disco in 2008.
Step One: The Right Set Up
They used to make cassette/radio combos that let you directly record to cassette. That ended pretty quickly once the industry saw that kids like me might take advantage of that. After that, I had to get creative. My personal pirating kit was a basic Walmart boom box and a Sony Pressman with the cover broken off. Both connected by a 20' aux cable; in case the weather made the signal weak that day. If you attempt this, you may have to place your radio closer to a window to achieve a clear signal. Be creative when building your own system, consider using a microphone and an 8-track. Supplementary material can be found in my companion field guide, “Unnecessarily Complex Solutions to Problems With Easy Answers”, available for only $12.99.
Step Two: Find The Right Station
It's hard work to sift through all available stations to find anything interesting, especially after ten. The trick is to find a station that occasionally dips a hesitant toe into alternative types of music. That’s where you can start to feel accomplished. A good place to start is channel surfing. Below you’ll find some examples of what to expect as you take your first steps into the world of cassette pirating:
First up is Delilah, a smooth voiced woman, with a killer intro song, who takes requests and dedications for a predominately melancholy fanbase. There is a serenity to that show, but the music selection is no good for pirating, pass this station. However, I recommend it as a calm evening activity.
Next, there is the late night conspiracy show. Primarily farmers discussing aliens and their effect on the crops. No music though, ROI is low, skip this station too.
After that there are around 10 country music stations in the upper 100s. Music for the bourgeois. Don’t waste time here either. Occasionally you’ll find a diamond up there between 106.3 and 107.1, but the cost of extended listening is too high.
When you swing back around between 88 and 90 Mhz, you’ll find some religious stations. A high ratio of talk to music combined with a target audience of 30+ makes these stations difficult targets. And, God might see you pirate his music. Forgiveness may be a sliding scale, who knows. It’s better to play it safe and focus on the devil's music.
Right around 92.4 and 96.5 is your best bet. NPR has World Café, which is a solid place to discover some safe avant-garde selections. This will feed your superiority complex, but also force you to expand your boundaries. And then there’s MIX 96, an accurate name. Bouncing from Van Halen to Adele, you’re bound to hear something good if you listen long enough. They even play Nirvana if you listen after midnight!
But somewhere, hidden in between 88 to 108 MHz, if you position the radio just right and the sky isn’t cloudy, is a frequency that broadcasts the audio from NBC. This is hardly the place you’ll find music. It’s all talk shows at this hour. You can listen to Conan, while the rest of the family is asleep. You can hear Jay Leno read off Headlines, and then scour your local newspaper for your own the next morning. But, on the weekends, you can hear Saturday Night Live. It’s nearly impossible to follow. And sometimes, they have really cool music. Like Spoon and My Morning Jacket.
Step Three: Improve Response Time.
The key to smooth cassette pirating is knowing when a good song is about to start. With a couple years of practice you should see a considerable advancement in your response time. (You can purchase my second companion guide, “Skills No One Could Need" for an additional $19.99.) But that’s what made finding music so special. For every stray Radiohead song you manage to record, there are hours and hours of Avril Lavigne. When you manage to capture that special song, you want listen to it again and again. You feel like you earned it, you fought for this music and won.
That’s what happened on April 6th, 2008. Panic! At the Disco was the musical guest on SNL. I started recording around 7 seconds into Nine in the Afternoon. A wonderfully weird pop song. All trumpets and nonsense. For some people, it’s an simply an OK song. And they’re right. But so are the Beatles and the Stones. Music decides who and when it wants to move. You can hear a song a million times before it clicks and you get it, you love it. 7 seconds into Nine in the Afternoon is already the start of the second line. But it didn’t matter, I had found a great new song. I replayed the part of the song I had recorded over and over until I knew every inch of it.
This could have been the story of how I first discovered Bowie, or heard Prince for the first time. But I’d be lying if this isn’t the moment I remember the most. My greatest victory was a pop song by a band with ! interrupting their name. Music is weird like that.