Cassette Tape: The 8-Track of Tomorrow
Tale of the Tape
Cassette tapes were once like Rodney Dangerfield, never getting any respect. But in recent years that has begun to change. Just as in the late 1980s and early 1990s the recently deceased 8-track had a bit of a cult comeback, so now are cassettes finally finding their place as an honorable member among music formats. Cassette lovers must face the reality that those little plastic cartridges will never hold the place in the music world's heart that vinyl does, or even the warm spot reserved for 8-tracks, but those who appreciate the cassette tape will not let that diminish their love of the tape.
Where It All Began
The word cassette means "little box" in French and that describes the audiotape pretty well. Also known as compact cassettes, audio cassettes, cassette tapes or simply cassettes or tapes, these tiny boxes full of music have brought joy to people the world over. The cassette as we know it was introduced in the United States in 1964 by Royal Philips Electronics Inc. (more commonly known as Philips Electronics or just Philips). It became the preferred magnetic tape cartridge system despite competition when Philips decided to license the format for free under pressure from the Sony Corporation.
Sound quality was not up to par with 8-tracks until the 1970s. After that, the cassette continued to improve and soon became the most popular alternative to vinyl records. The ability to record onto cassettes as well as the introduction of higher quality portable cassette players fueled their popularity during the 1980s and soon most music lovers were using cassettes on a routine basis, either as their primary format or to record their own compilations or "mix tapes" as they later became known.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Audio cassettes had their heyday in the late 1980s but began a steady decline once compact discs had a firm hold on the market. As vinyl also faded in popularity, cassettes were replaced by the shiny new discs that not only had superior sound quality but were also recordable and portable -- the two strengths previously reserved for audio tapes. And as music fans became more familiar with computers, the ease of making digital mix tapes on CD made the once robust format all but obsolete.
By the mid 1990s the "little boxes" were getting less and less shelf space in music stores but were faring much better than vinyl which was next to non-existent. The format hung on until the turn of the century but by 2001 cassettes accounted for less than 5% of pre-recorded music sales. Cassettes popularity was extended to some degree by the number of cassette players in automobiles, but as in-dash CD players became the norm, even this last refuge of the cassette gave way to the digital age.
Today and Tomorrow
Cassettes never completely faded away thanks to a small portion of music aficionados who find the crispness of digital formats less desirable than the relative warmth of analog. Though the major labels have forsaken the format, smaller music companies continue to release product on cassette and sales of blank cassettes are still significant. Vinyl lovers tend to buy cassettes to record to rather than compact discs in order get a more natural sound which some feel can be lost when recording to digital.
The future of cassettes in the mainstream will be in the nostalgia they hold for some and perhaps the retro hipness that comes to all things once popular. Just as 8-tracks became collectors items in the early 1990s, cassettes now seem to be gaining popularity once again. Some rarer cassettes now sell on eBay and similar sites for hundreds of dollars and keep going up. For the time being at least, it appears this trend will continue. Someday cassettes may fade into total obscurity, but it will not be anytime soon.
Some Silence May Occur...
Just as many cassettes included a warning that "some silence might occur" at the end of one side or another to "preserve the playing order of the original album", it is likely that eventually the cassette will be forever silenced. Will cassettes be remembered in 100 years? One thousand? How about one thousand centuries from now? Certainly at some point, it will be a forgotten format, but for now those wonderful "little boxes" continue to bring joy to many of us everyday.
Rock on, my friends! Rock on.