ABOUT THE FORMAT
Compact cassettes, also known as audio cassettes or tapes, were introduced to the European public by Phillips in 1963 at the Berlin Radio Show. They were initially sold blank, as the market was for dictation and voice recording. Although these first cassettes had low audio fidelity, over the years improvement to the format led to a higher audio quality. In 1965 the design had reached the point where consumers were ready and willing to purchase cassettes with pre-recorded music on them.
The material costs of the tape made them cheap to make and to purchase. It didn’t take long for the format to surpass vinyl LPs as the preferred method of listening to pre-recorded audio. Why were people from all around the world adopting this format? There were many audio formats that came and went without wide adoption. A strong reason for cassettes’ domination is Phillips made the decision to license the format free of charge, so companies from around the world focused on improving the audio fidelity rather than completely creating a new format. The improvement in audio fidelity broadened the market possibilities leading to compact cassettes being found all over the world.
The societal impact of the compact cassette can be seen through how the American recording industry responded to it. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for a law to tax blank tapes. The belief was that blank cassettes encouraged piracy which was linked to lagging record sales. In July 1980, Bow Wow Wow released the world’s first cassette single “C30, C60, C90, Go!” with side B blank. Lyrics in the song were said to encourage self-recording for the consumer, much to the displeasure of their record label, EMI. EMI refused to do any marketing for the cassingle and soon after dropped the band.
Tape’s popularity started to wane in the 90s with the advent of compact discs. By 2002 the media was telling the compact cassette’s death story. Through out its history there have been a number of communities of use, some of which started well after its decline as a popular consumer media. These communities paint an important and nuanced portrait of the format.
One of the first communities of use was the business sector for dictation. The ability to re record over the same tape was a big selling point. Another early compact cassette adopter was information technology professionals or computer scientists for the microcomputer data storage. They were even used by home computing users. Atari had a cassette which was used for its Program Recorder. However these never gained too much traction in the greater public because of rapid advances in home computing.
The cassette also opened up new methods to expand musicians’ sound and influences. As Henry Rollins discusses in the film Cassette, there was a low financial barrier for a person to record and immediately playback their performance without the purchase of expensive recording equipment. It could then be cheaply copied and distributed rather quickly. Compact cassette’s small size and light-weight made it easy for people to carry tapes around in their pockets or bags. This allowed artists and musicians, like Daniel Johnston, to share their works within their means which then led to the growth and awareness of independent music scenes. The possibilities and cross-over within the music world grew beyond studio backed musicians. (Cassette, 2018). It was easy for people to press record and then share their music, thoughts, and influences.
It wasn’t long before the mixtapes became a signal of intimacy, as Rob Drew argues in the article “The Cassette in the 1980s Indie Music Scene”. “The act of compilation and gifting of recorded music [served] as an act of mentorship and intimacy.” (Drew, 2019). The ability to create personalized juxtapositions of music with a targeted audience had not been experienced by so many before (Cassette, 2018). These mixes were the precursors to mixed CDs and playlists which we can find all over the Internet. Influence in the hip hop world is seen today through the release of completely digital mixtapes.
Outside of music, compact cassettes played a significant role in personal communication. You may remember the cassettes used for home answering machines which became an American middle class home staple by the 1990s. Additionally, trans-national families utilized compact cassettes to remain in contact over vast distances. Family members could record 90 minutes of conversation, news, and experiences for a fraction of the cost of a long-distance phone call.
The popularity of compact cassettes has seen a resurgence in the past decade, particularly among young people. Billie Eilish, among other mainstream musicians, released an album on cassette this past year. BPI, British Phonographic Industry, predicts that 2020 cassettes sales will be on the same level as 2003. Some chalk this up to the nostalgia of the format rather than anything lasting. However others, like French company Mulaan group, see digital and analog as complimentary allowing consumers to enjoy music in a variety of ways.
Online communities and blogs provide a way to promote underground, niche or avant garde music scenes which release their music on cassette. Some rather popular ones are “Die or DIY?” or “Awesome Tapes from Africa”. They also provide access to cassette only labels which focus on the physical releases, such as Telos Tapes, Gnar Tapes, and Not Not Fun Records.
Cassette store day, which started in the UK, is an international annually observed day which started in 2013 where labels will release special editions for purchase at participating record stores. 2020’s day was cancelled due to sexual assault allegations against one of the main record labels involved, Burger Records.
ASSESSING THE FORMAT
Audiovisual formats are interesting feats of engineering with unique needs. Therefore we recommend that for more in-depth preservation and conservation technique, visit University of Illinois’ Preservation Self-Assessment Program, or PSAP. We have included some basic elements of the preservation to illustrate a base-line of care. The start of any preservation effort, however, begins with an assessment of the item.
- Look at the pushpad is it present and still intact?
- Are there any breaks in the shell or small pieces of plastic rattling around? These should be removed before attempting playback.
- Watch for tape loops or tangles prior to playback
- Check to see if the tape is coming unglued from hub
- Does the tape or container have water or dirt damage?
- If the tape is not commercially recorded material, remove the record protection tabs at the top of the tape. This will protect the content from being recorded over.
Many of the issues above can be resolved by reshelling a tape. This means that you take the spools with the tape on them out of the original plastic shell and put it in a new plastic case. Reshelling takes patience, dexterity with small pieces, and basic mechanical skills. There are many demonstrations on the Internet to explain how to do so. We liked this demo from the DC Public Library’s Memory Lab.
Cassette players are still readily available for purchase, both new and used. When purchasing a used cassette ensure that the push pad is intact. This little piece of felt mounted to a metal rectangle helps maintain consistent pressure to the audio heads of the playback device. Many playback machines cannot properly capture the audio signals without it and even the best tape player may damage a tape missing a push pad.
We digitize our personal collections within both the Vincent Voice Library (VVL) and University Archives. In terms of format deterioration, compact cassettes are considered vulnerable but not the highest priority for reformatting. However if you have unique and highly valuable content stored on this format, you may want to digitize it sooner. We use Tascam CD-A580 tape decks for the digitization in the Vincent Voice Library. In the University Archives and Historical Collections we use a Marantz PMD-300CP player/recorder with a RCA-3.5mm y-adapter to capture at 96kHz/24-bit for preservation.
Tapes should always be stored upright in their cases and avoid stacking them in order not to put pressure on the tape which can lead to cracking. The ideal storage environment is a consistent temperature above freezing but below 70F, with between 20 and 40 percent relative humidity.
- “History of Cassette:” Vintage Cassettes, vintagecassettes.com/_history/history.htm.
- “Compact Cassette (1963 – 2000s).” Museum of Obsolete Media, 30 Sept. 2020, obsoletemedia.org/compact-cassette/.
- “Audio Format Timeline.” Museum of Obsolete Media, obsoletemedia.org/audio/.
- “Compact Cassette, History, Invention – World Wide Inventions.” Worldwide Inventions, 22 Nov. 2009, worldwideinvention.com/compact-cassette-history-invention/.
- Lyon, Joshua. “Annabella Lwin and the History of Bow Wow Wow.” V Magazine, 6 Sept. 2016, vmagazine.com/article/annabella-lwin-and-the-history-of-bow-wow-wow/.
- Stuever, Hank. “In the Digital Age, the Quaint Cassette Is Sent Reeling into History’s Dustbin.” The Washington Post, 29 Oct. 2002, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/in-the-digital-age-the-quaint-cassette-is-sent-reeling-into-historys-dustbin/2013/09/06/800d4994-171b-11e3-a2ec-b47e45e6f8ef_story.html.
- “Audio Format Timeline.” Museum of Obsolete Media, obsoletemedia.org/audio/.
- Crawford, Chris, et al. “The Atari Cassette.” De Re Atari – Appendix C, www.atariarchives.org/dere/chaptC.php.
- Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape. Directed by Zack Taylor et al., 2016.
- Madianou, Mirca, and Daniel Miller. “Crafting Love: Letters and Cassette Tapes in Transnational Filipino Family Communication.” South East Asia Research, vol. 19, no. 2, June 2011, pp. 249–272, 10.5367/sear.2011.0043.
- Wood, Z., 2019. Back in the loop: why cassette tapes became fashionable again. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/nov/09/back-in-the-loop-why-cassette-tapes-became-fashionable-again.
- Ledsome, Alex. “The Walkman and Cassette Tapes Are Making a Comeback.” Forbes, 19 Jan. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/alexledsom/2020/01/19/the-walkman-and-cassette-tapes-are-making-a-comeback/#11ec378250ad.
- “TAPE LABEL LIST.” Tabs Out Cassette Podcast, www.tabsout.com/?page_id=15214.
- Schatz, Lake, and Wren Graves. “Burger Records Employees, Artists Accused of Rampant Sexual Misconduct.” Consequence of Sound, 28 July 2020, consequenceofsound.net/2020/07/burger-record-artists-sexual-misconduct/.
- “Obsolescence Ratings.” Museum of Obsolete Media, obsoletemedia.org/media-preservation/obsolescence-ratings/.