Say what you want about cassettes. They’re easy to destroy. They don’t sound so hot once they start to wear. But for my money, there has never been a format that made audio more universally accessible. You could take your music anywhere, and you could capture anything you wanted quickly and with ease just by pressing a button. And you could do it all for a very reasonable price.
Cassettes were a huge part of my life for a very long time. From the time I was old enough to remember things right up until my early 20s, I used them every day. I bought most of my music that way until I finally got a CD player for Christmas when I was 15, and even after that I would still record things off the radio and from borrowed CDs because we were still in the time before everyone had access to decent internet or even CD burners. I would record myself. I would record other people. I would record things off the TV so I could listen to them while I fell asleep at night. I made mixtapes (ask Carin about some of those). Ahh hell. I’m making myself miss cassettes right now. They were so useful.
Lou Ottens, Inventor Of The Cassette Tape, Has Died
The cassette tape was Ottens’ answer to the large reel-to-reel tapes that provided high-quality sound but were seen as too clunky and expensive. He took on the challenge of shrinking tape technology in the early 1960s, when he became the head of new product development in Hasselt, Belgium, for the Dutch-based Philips technology company.
“Lou wanted music to be portable and accessible,” says documentary filmmaker Zack Taylor, who spent days with Ottens for his film Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.
Ottens’ goal was to make something simple and affordable for anyone to use. As Taylor says, “He advocated for Philips to license this new format to other manufacturers for free, paving the way for cassettes to become a worldwide standard.”
Ottens was famously unsentimental about the invention that has accounted for some 100 billion sales, according to NRC. In a career devoted to seeking higher fidelity and advancing technology, he dismissed tapes as primitive and prone to noise and distortion.
And one more thing I appreciate about them that I thought of later and couldn’t find a way to fit in up top. They made you get to know an album more than you have to now, for better or worse. It was more of a pain to skip tracks, so you tended to listen all the way through more often, or at least you did until you figured out exactly where the things worth a repeat listen were and either stopped it when they were done, found them on the tape as best you could or dubbed them onto a different cassette with only the good songs of the moment on it. Once CDs hit and especially now with downloading and streaming, it was much easier to hear just what you wanted rather than listening to an album front to back. Doing that now sometimes feels more like a chore than anything else. It’s great to have all of the hits and things we want to hear on demand, but I feel like a lot of pretty good music is going undiscovered or under-appreciated as a result.