How do people listen to music these days? As odd as this question might sound, it serves a bigger purpose. If your answer is along the lines of “on their phones with earphones tucked in” or “streaming online on their computers,” you are correct. But what about listening to music before the advent of the internet? To answer this question, we’ll have to go way back in time.
You might have seen a picture meme showing a plastic case with the black tape sticking out of it and a pencil placed next to it. If you can picture it exactly, you are older than you think! You guessed it right, those were cassette tapes, and the pencil was used to roll the tape back into the cassette if a naughty kid has pulled it out.
The cassette tape was the king of its time. It was a “cool” thing to carry a cassette player around, listening to music. The story behind the creation of cassette tapes is interesting as they were considered toys for children in the beginning.
With the invention of magnetic tapes in 1928, it was time to create a medium to hold and play the data stored over these tapes. In 1953, a reel-to-reel recorder was made by the name of “Magnetphon.” Although it was effective, it was not for regular use due to its large size and weight. For this reason, it was limited to radio stations and recording studios only.
After World War II, the Americans used German technology to develop relatively smaller tape recorders. By the end of 1953, almost 1 million US citizens had tape recorders in their homes. Over the years, the tape recorders took on smarter designs. The cassette tapes were also modified in size and design. The RCA Tape Cartridge proved to be a failure in the market.
It was in the early 60s when a Belgian team created a two-hole cassette which was similar to the RCA tape but smaller and more efficient. In 1964, Phillips opted to launch this design, and it was trademarked as Compact Cassette. The credit for this goes to the Dutchman, Lou Ottens.
With this, Philips’ version of the cassette become instantly famous. Philips also offered a recording device which was later released as Norelco Carry-Corder 150. By the end of the 1960s, the cassette business was booming with around 150 million dollars.
While Philips was the main market for cassette tapes, they were still in competition with other manufacturers. To make a worldwide impact, Philips had to get a breakthrough in the Japanese market. Philips was hesitant, but Sony persuaded them to give license to the Japanese without any charge. From then on, the recording quality of the cassettes improved too. Mass production of blank cassettes started, and people bought them in hoards.
For youth, the idea of saving their favorite songs in one place was a very exciting one. The demand for blank cassettes kept on increasing with every purchase. Some companies produced pre-recorded cassettes, but the sound quality was really bad. This wasn’t a surprise as the recording system was initially built for the purpose of dictation and not for music.
In 1971, Dolby took it upon themselves to devise better quality recording systems. They introduced recorders with noise reduction and commercial-grade type tape transfer. This was the start of copying music on the tapes seriously.
Despite being created in the 1960s, cassette tapes became a global phenomenon during the 1970s and 1980s. With better quality of the tapes came portability as the recorders and players were made in various sizes, including pocket size. Sony launched its famous Walkman in 1979. It was time for the compact cassettes to take over the old vinyl records.
Although cassettes were getting immensely popular, the vinyl records were still in sales. This was because many singers released their songs over records. Another barrier was the compact size of the cassettes – they were too easy to be stolen. The shopkeepers had to secure the cassettes in showcases or big boxes, which hindered browsing. All these factors combined made it a bit hard for the cassettes to take over completely.
Criticism & Negative Impact
The cassette tapes proved to be a milestone in the music industry. But since it was an audio recording device, it did not remain limited to music for long. The ease of copying data onto a cassette made it a medium for political use.
During the Iranian Revolution, cassettes were used to record sermons and were distributed among the rebels. A similar thing happened in Chile, where pirated or banned music was played using compact cassettes. It was like conveying a message over masses with just a small cassette. India blamed the cassettes for spreading other religions’ sermons in Hindu majority areas even though pop music was at its peak, thanks to the cassettes.
The thing about technology is that it never remains the same for too long. It keeps on striving for better and better options. The decline of cassette tapes started with the invention of Compact Discs, aka CDs. During the 1990s, cassette lost its charm in front of CD’s sparkle as it was more effective and easier to use. The pre-recorded CDs had no issues with the quality.
By the 2000s, sales for CD players increased rapidly compared to cassette players. By 2003, many major US manufacturers discontinued the production of pre-recorded cassettes. Sony sold the last Walkman in 2010. The same year, the last car to have a cassette player was manufactured, which was a Lexus SC 430. In 2011, Oxford English Dictionary removed the word “cassette player” from its 12th version. It was the end of compact cassette tapes.
Cassette Tapes – An Era of Analog Music
Everything great eventually comes to an end. The date within cassette tapes was a glorious one. It gave the gift of portability to people who thought that music could only be listened in their living rooms in the form of vinyl records. The cassette tapes gave freedom to everyone, which no one thought they needed. Even after the decline of cassette tapes, they remain a relic for the new generation to know where it all started.