Audio formats have gone through some significant changes over the years, especially since the 90s. If you were to hop into a time machine to 1996, everyone would be listening to audio cassettes. Basically every car was built with a tape player installed in the dash, and houses would have at least one boombox with a dual tape player. Tapes were everywhere.
But where did they come from?It turns out that audio cassettes (also called compact cassettes and musicassettes) have a pretty interesting history. To get to the beginning, we’ll need to take a trip to 1963. Philips, the company that still makes electronics to this day, released the new compact cassette technology from their home base in Belgium.
Audio cassettes basically improved on already existing reel technologies that were common at the time. The problem with reels is that they were too big, they were a pain to transport, they were inconvenient to use, and they were expensive. Compact cassettes were the solution to all of that.
In order to create these awesome, translucent relics of the past, Philips essentially shrunk existing technologies and put them into a neato little package. The interesting thing is that cassettes weren’t originally designed to hold music--at least not on purpose. The first cassettes and cassette players that hit the market were for home and professional recording.
The first music cassettes didn’t hit the market until about 3 years after blank cassettes were sold with recording machines. We might have Sony to thank for that. If you’ve kept up with some of our other articles about media formats, Sony is almost always in the middle of the format fray. In this case, Sony pressured Philips to license the cassette technology to them for free, and Philips agreed. Sony must have seen cassette tapes’ incredible potential, so they got involved as quickly as they could.
Probably because of that, cassettes became a full-fledged media format phenomenon in only a few years. Starting in 1968, car manufacturers built cassette decks into the dashboard by default, and tapes became the format of choice for music listeners everywhere. Cars blared albums from their favorite artists at all times. Cassettes were so dang convenient!
Best of all, cassettes freed people to listen to music everywhere. Thanks to Sony, music became deeply personal. In 1979 they invented a small box with a headphone outlet that could play music anywhere. This device made music portable, and probably changed the world forever, and they called this invention the Walkman. Even though Sony might have put a little bit of undue pressure on Philips to initially license the format, they certain helped make cassettes ubiquitous by coming up with such a rad and revolutionary invention.
Really, cassettes changed music culture for forever. Before tapes, people bought vinyl LPs to listen to music at home, but you can’t really take a record player anywhere you go. I mean, putting a gramophone down your pants isn’t super practical, after all. But with tapes--and the walkman--music could be taken anywhere. You could listen to whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, and wherever you wanted.
And if I can reminisce for moment, cassettes will always have a soft spot in my heart, because one of my most prized possessions as a child was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” on tape. I used to blast that album on repeat, and I was the king of 3rd grade for being able to recite every single lyric. We don’t really talk about Coolio these days--probably rightfully so--but he made me the cool kid for a little bit. In the mid 90s, I can basically thank cassettes for my flourishing social life.
Unfortunately, CDs got really popular around the late 90s, and cassettes fell out of favor pretty quickly afterwards.
If I think about it, it’s probably likely that digital music wouldn’t really have happened the same way if cassettes hadn’t been invented. They were a weird, quirky technology, but they opened up new possibilities, and for that, humanity will be forever thankful.