Updated: Nov 21, 2018
Several months ago, the CD player in my car stopped working. Whilst I was looking for a replacement, I purchased a few used cassettes and started using the cassette player which had previously lay dormant in the centre console. As time went on, I became more interested in the cassette as a medium and have continued to use them in the car. Therefore, this week’s entry comprises part one of a two-part post initially exploring the history of the compact music cassette. Part two will be posted in two weeks and will discuss the recent resurgence in the format.
Having originally been introduced to the European market in 1963, the blank recordable compact cassette was first released to market in its format in 1964, with the pre-recorded music cassette following in 1965. The cassettes comprised of 2 miniature spools housed in plastic cartridges, around which a length of magnetic tape is fed and wound.
The popularity of pre-recorded music cassettes grew and by the 1970’s, alongside vinyl they were the dominant medium for the mass distribution of recorded music. In 1979 their popularity grew further with the release of the first portable cassette player, the Sony Walkman.
This was a huge development in the listening habits of music consumers. For the first time it allowed people to take their music with them out and about in a relatively convenient package. Today this is something we take for granted with streaming access to virtually the entire history of recorded music via our phones anywhere we can get a connection, but at the time this was considered revolutionary, something made possible by the compact cassette.
Between 1963 and 1999 audio equipment including cassette playing functionality exceeded 3 billion units, with the number of cassettes being produced estimated between 50 and 100 billion.
The first signs that would go on to bring about the eventual decline of the compact cassette occurred in 1982, first with the introduction of the compact disc and then in 1984 with the release of the first portable CD player, the Sony D-50. Despite this the popularity of cassettes continued through the 1980’s, until in the mid 1990’s CD’s and other media would begin to have a serious impact. Worldwide sales of the CD were estimated at 3 billion pieces for 1996 whereas cassettes came to 4.6 billion, however sales in blank recordable cassettes fell by 4.5% from 2.098 to 2.003 billion from 1996 to 1997.
The 2000’s brought about a dramatic fall in the sales of cassettes. As with all other physical music mediums, the advent of digital distribution had a profound effect. Music cassettes were particularly affected, whilst blank cassettes maintained a greatly diminished but consistent demand, supplying the home recording market. By the mid 2000’s most of the remaining production companies had moved out of cassettes and into CD reproduction.
They originally supplied the blank cassette market and had managed to stay in business due to the continued, albeit diminished demand. In 2005 they had recognised their competitors moving out of the industry and decided to double down. They speculated that the music cassette would see a resurgence in popularity and set about purchasing competitor’s surplus production equipment and restoring it for use in their own factory. This allowed them to move into the music cassette reproduction market. By 2015, National Audio Company was the last firm still producing cassettes and fortunately they had begun to see their earlier speculation pay off.
- Andriessen, W. (1999). ‘THE WINNER’; compact cassette. A commercial and technical look back at the greatest success story in the history of AUDIO up to now. Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials, 193(1999), 11-16.
- Bloomberb (Producer). (2015, 4 September). The Last Audio Cassette Factory [Multimedia]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMTpvr9HXeI
- Dezember, R., & Steele, A. (2017, 3 November). A Global Shortage of Magnetic Tape Leaves Cassette Fans Reeling. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/cassettes-are-making-a-comeback-but-there-s-a-kink-nobody-makes-tape-1509723435
- National Audio Company. (2017). History of National Audio Company, Retrieved from https://www.nationalaudiocompany.com/history-national-audio-company/
- Olivarez-Giles, N. (2017, 9 March). Why Cassette Tapes Are Making a Comeback. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-cassette-tapes-are-making-a-comeback-1489080349