Half a century of the cassette, a technology that truly brought music home
And so it comes to be, this time of the year, that the compact cassette turns 50. Such mundane anniversaries and obituaries are a press staple now, with technologies streaking across the scene at furious speed in the last few decades. There have been sentimental accounts praising and mourning the floppy drive, the compact disk, the typewriter, the Walkman, the instant camera, and many, many more bits of tech ephemera.
The cassette was an interim stage in music storage and playback, it served our needs until it didn’t. We make much of these things not because of their special qualities, but because we feel bits of our own past receding. The cassette is what media scholar Sherry Turkle calls an evocative object. For many like me, it prompts images of the ’80s, of flimsy plastic cases, of glossy brown tape unspooling, of sticking little fingers into the middle to stretch it taut again.
Philips first showcased the compact cassette at the Berlin Radio Show in the annus mirabilis of 1963. But it didn’t become a widespread consumer technology until much later, especially in India, because of import restrictions. Their rarity is what made the standard Gulfie or Canadian immigrant dream of the two-in-one stereo even more alluring.
It’s hard to imagine how radical and democratising the tape must have been then, how it anticipated many of the current anxieties around digital copying and sharing, around the manipulability of media, and whether you could trust your own ears and eyes.
The tape recorder welcomed regular users into the musical experience, like nothing else before it. You could record or erase, you could assemble an album at home and pass it around, leading to waves of corporate panic about the “death of music”. It also made the consumption of music much more private and portable — you could carry your tape player or Walkman around, listen to it alone. Mass producing cassettes was much easier than vinyl records, allowing younger and poorer listeners to own music.
And, happily enough, it made the mix tape possible.