The Legacy of the Cassette tape

The inventor of the cassette tape, Lou Ottens, died earlier this week. From the NY Times:

In these digital days, it may be hard to appreciate how radically Lou Ottens changed the audio world when, in 1963, he and his team at Philips, the Dutch electronics company, introduced the cassette tape.

“As the story goes, Lou was home one night trying to listen to a reel-to-reel recording when the loose tape began to unravel from its reel,” Zack Taylor, who directed the 2017 film “Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape,” said by email.

Mr. Ottens was in charge of product development at the Philips plant in Hasselt, Belgium, at the time.

“The next morning,” Mr. Taylor continued, “a frustrated Lou Ottens gathered the engineers and designers from the Philips audio division and insisted that they create something foolproof: The tape had to be enclosed, and the player had to fit in his jacket pocket.”

The cassette was a way to play music in a portable fashion, something not easily done with vinyl, and to record it conveniently as well. Artists started using cassettes to record passing ideas. Bootleggers used them to record live concerts for the underground market. Young lovers used them to swap mix tapes of songs that expressed their feelings.

Soon record labels began releasing entire albums on cassettes and automakers were installing cassette players on dashboards.

Another portable technology, the bulkier 8-track cartridge, was introduced in the same period, but cassettes, smaller and recordable, quickly doomed those devices, and also cut into the vinyl market.

NY Times

To me, the juxtaposition of Mr. Ottens, an engineer from the Netherlands, and the up and coming urban rappers from NYC (and other cities) who used and embraced his invention to distribute their music, for the exact reasons that Mr. Ottens was frustrated with other formats of the time, can not be understated.

There is a great documentary on Amazon called Cassette: A Documentary Mix Tape. The trailer is below and you can also see several clips and deleted scenes on the documentary’s website.

The importance of Mr. Ottens’ creation across the globe is staggering, if you really think about it, especially in the context of the birth of rap music in the 1970s and the ability of the kids of a certain generation to make mix tapes as a method of expression.

Over the past several years, there has been a renewed interest in cassette tapes. Modern artists today regularly offer up their albums in the cassette format (vinyl too!). While cassettes clearly are not as popular today as they were ‘back in the day’, it seems obvious that the format will never really go away.

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