Retro cassette tapes and radio cassette recorder
Retro cassette tapes and radio cassette recorder
Image: 123rf.com

They may be relegated to the pile of bygone technologies today, but there was a point in history when cassette tapes were the main medium of music consumption. Nowadays, one is more likely to experience the format being used for obscure releases targeted at niche audiences. 

Anyone who was alive in the ’90s will recall trading tapes with people in the neighbourhood, a pastime that ensured as large a number of individuals had access to the latest sounds. For those who were situated further away from metropolitan areas, and hence unlikely to have a constant supply of music, these tapes would be played until their quality disintegrated. The frustration of realising that a song wouldn’t play because the section of tape it’s recorded on is ruined is one of the many reasons why cassette tapes are best left in the past. 

History 

The idea to use magnetic tape to record audio dates back to the 1930s. This is where the first reel-to-reel tape was recorded. To date, some recording studios still have reel-to-reel machines for certain applications. The compact cassette tape was developed by the Phillips company in 1962, and introduced to the market the following year. 

“A year after our introduction, there came a lot of imitations from Japan. And then we said, ‘well, gentlemen, if you want to imitate our cassette, you better [adhere to] a standard. And that worked. That’s the reason it didn’t become obsolete too early,” says compact cassette inventor Lou Ottens in a documentary film called Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.

This portable format was adopted wholesale by the recording industry during the ’70s. Up until then, music was distributed on vinyl records. Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979, which enabled people to access music on-the-go at a large scale. The digital compact disc, introduced in 1980, led to the eventual decline of cassette tapes in the ’90s. 

CDs were marketed as being of better quality and more durable. By the dawn of the 2000s, cassette tapes were getting used less and less. The tape hiss, the unreliable sound quality, the tendency for cassettes to spew the tape out for no reason — all these contributed to the general disinterest in the format.

How it works 

Magnetic recording is commonly known as the “backbone technology” of the electronic age. The compact cassette consists of two miniature spools. A magnetically coated plastic tape is wound on both of the spools. The tape passes a playback head, and this is how the magnetic data is read and converted into an electrical signal that can be transmitted through headphones and speakers.

The magnetic particles on a brand new cassette tape model — some of the popular ones include Sonotech, TDK and Maxell — are randomised. On recording, they become ordered “based on the voltage levels of the signal that is recorded on to them”. Magnetic tape has also been used in the video realm as VHS tapes, and in the computer world as floppy disks.

A universal occupation

The first cassette tape I owned was Brothers Of Peace’s King Of Kwaito Uyagawula. I was already into Kwaito music, but what the album did was to impress on me how exceptional the music was, and how special it was to own a piece from that era. I would also record songs off of the radio, and would ensure to press stop as soon as the radio announcer’s voice came in. With time, I came to realise that this was a universal occupation. 

My friends and I would save up lunch money to purchase our own cassettes at a lone record bar in Maseru, where I lived. Here, we got introduced to groups such as Culture, Burning Spear, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh — all artists we’d only heard on the radio, or seen vinyl records of in our parents’ households. Collecting and exchanging tapes was tradition; this is how I got introduced to Busta Rhymes, Gangstaar, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, Buju Banton, and more. Cassette tapes held musical memories for beleaguered youth looking for something to call theirs.

We have gone through five different eras of music consumption, from vinyl, to cassette tape, to CD, to MP3, and streaming, which is the era we’re now locked into. Cassette tapes and CDs are formats that used to house gems. Now, we have all but traded ownership for access. While it is fascinating to have whatever song on demand, we don’t own the streaming platforms, and so there is always the threat that the platforms will cease to exist, and leave in their wake a huge void. The mass erasure of the physical format has also coincided with the devaluation of music. 

A welcome return?

New albums aren’t as fascinating any more; there is no excitement to rinse an album multiple times. Instead of hand-to-hand exchanges, we are forced to share links. This signals an entirely new paradigm, one whose tentacles we don’t control. Much like magazines, cassette tapes may have been the last bastion of hope where archiving is concerned. But perhaps not all is lost. 

According to reports, cassette tapes are making a comeback — though nothing compared to the scale at which they used to be adopted. Moreover, physical format revenues rose 13.4% in 2023, according to 2024’s IFPI Global Music Report. There is hope after all.

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