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Cassettes: Are They Making a Comeback?

Zabir Rahman | May 28, 2021
Cassettes: Are They Making a Comeback?

Most individuals, who are about 30 years and older, will have fond memories of listening to music on cassette tapes. From purchasing new releases, to trading them, to also proudly displaying one’s collection, were all part of a bygone era. Most households will possibly still have a large stash of old tapes, packed away in some long-forgotten carton, holed up in an overhead shelf. But nostalgia is strange; it often leads one to become a hoarder without even realising it.

Meanwhile, those with a creative bent of mind have upcycled cassettes into creative pieces of art in the form of lamps or decoratives. And there are still others who realise there is a sizeable market out there for collectibles. In case you own some classics and they are in good condition, be sure to take as much care of them as you would your possessions in a bank locker.

A Dutch invention

The audio cassette was invented in 1963 by a Dutch engineer called Lou Ottens. It was actually an idea born out of irritation with the then popular reel-to-reel tapes. These were bulky and not easily portable. At its formal launch in Berlin, Germany, the cassette was endorsed as being “smaller than a pack of cigarettes!”

A young Ottens was fascinated by technology. During World War 2, he built a radio for his family to listen into war time broadcasts about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Radios were already a common feature then; so what was special about Ottens’ creation? Well, it was equipped with a special antenna that he named a “Germanenfilter”. This radio was, therefore, able to receive radio signals despite the frequency jammers deployed by the Nazis. Come to think of it, this was the Nazi equivalent of what current governments resort to — of first jamming internet networks when protests begin.

Ottens was employed by the Dutch electronics giant Philips. He worked at the firm for his entire career. Following Philips’ unveiling of the cassette, pictures of the invention found their way to Japan. There were Japanese versions soon, albeit of lesser quality, available. At this juncture, it seems Sony had developed its own version of a cassette too. However, Ottens–and Philips–ascertained their version became the standard. Although not confirmed, there is a high possibility that Sony actually copied Philips’ invention but there was no hostility exchanged or lawsuits filed. This was because Philips did not charge royalties on their cassette patent. The two companies collaborated on developing the cassette’s successor — the compact disc (CD). In this instance too, Ottens played a major role.

A slight digression here is irresistible. There is an even more interesting scenario that must be unfolded. In the context of World War 2, Philips was based out of a country that was occupied by Germany, which was an Allied Power. This bloc comprised the likes of Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan and fascist Italy. Sony, meanwhile, was Japanese and they were active contributors to the war effort. However, in less than twenty years of the war’s conclusion, two companies–from opposing sides–came together and collaborated. And their combined efforts gave the world the much-loved CD.

Cassette players offered portability

Cassettes were all the rage worldwide. It redefined people’s listening habits, especially from a portability standpoint. Its predecessor–the vinyl LP record–was large and a record player was an even larger device that couldn’t be carried on person. But following the cassette’s introduction came portable devices, most notably the Walkman. This was a Sony invention.

When we were growing up, a Walkman in hand with headphones around the scalp screamed “hey, I’m cool”. But when nobody was looking, chances are the rewind or fast forward button was not used for fear of using up the batteries quicker. There was an ingenious hack instead that many figured out just like that; as if it was “an idea whose time had come”. Using a ballpoint pen was the perfect alternative to rewind or fast forward a tape. One simply needed to jam a pen in the teeth and spin it around.

The other big convenience cassettes offered was the ability to customise. Home audio systems with dual cassette decks offered a record feature. It allowed a user to copy their favourite songs–from varied cassettes–onto one mixtape. In fact, it even spurred a cottage industry in places; there were small businesses that only made mixtapes. In current lingo, they’d be labelled pirates.

The comeback

Global cassette sales peaked in the mid-1980s, when an estimated 900 million units were sold annually. As the CD acquired popularity, cassette sales began to taper off. I recall making my final cassette purchase in 2003. And I received two as gifts in 2004. In all the years since, I was under the impression that cassettes were now modern antiques that no one really cared about. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I read cassettes are making a comeback, just like LP records. The past year witnessed an almost 100 percent increase in cassette sales, with over 156,000 copies sold in the UK alone. Lady Gaga is among the artistes jumping onto the cassette bandwagon.

Personally, I am not fully sure where the bulk of my cassettes are located but I sure have upcycling ideas for them. Given that certain albums might actually command a decent price among collectors, I am sure going to look for them. The chances are slim but the odd copy might just be my early retirement payout.

Zabir Rahman

Zabir drives research writing at Stonebench, Singapore. His core interest was automobiles, although with time, he thinks he is growing more fond of writing and teaching. Zabir is now keenly interested in the technology space and is part of the Elbyte editorial team.

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