The Irish Times view on the cassette tape: mixtape revolution

The era of storing music on tapes or discs may be drawing to a close, but its artefacts retain a powerful hold on the popular imagination

Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette tape, died this week at the age of 94 at his home in Duizel village, the Netherlands. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/ EPA

Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette tape, died this week at the age of 94 at his home in Duizel village, the Netherlands. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/ EPA

 

Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, who died this week at the age of 94, may not have been a household name but he made a more significant contribution than many more famous contemporaries to 20th century culture. In the 1960s, Ottens and his team at the electronics company Phillips invented the cassette tape, revolutionising how people listened to music. The cheap and (relatively) durable cassette allowed them to record and share their favourite artists and tracks, leading in time to the invention of the in-car cassette player, the original Sony Walkman, and the portable ghetto blaster, all of which liberated recorded music from cumbersome record players and brought it out onto the street.

Cassettes made possible the creation of DIY mixtapes, lovingly curated expressions of personal musical taste. And they frightened the music industry, which claimed that “home taping is killing music”, little knowing that far greater threats lay ahead. Later, Ottens contributed to the demise of his own invention through his work on the development of the CD, jointly launched by Philips and Sony in 1982. The new format offered vastly superior sound quality and in later years he was scornful of those who, with some success, promoted a nostalgic revival of the old cassette.

What was not evident at the time was that both cassette and CD were staging posts towards the final decoupling of audio recordings from physical formats of any kind. The cassette made music mobile, and CDs made it digital, but the internet rendered it intangible and – to the chagrin of many musicians – largely unprofitable.

The era of storing music on tapes or discs may be drawing to a close, but its artefacts retain a powerful hold on the popular imagination. Classic albums from rock music’s heyday are still treasured for their sleeve art and for what some believe is superior analogue sound quality. Cassettes have less aesthetic appeal or audio fidelity, but a homemade teenage mixtape, retrieved from a box in the attic, with its track listing carefully transcribed in faded biro, can have the potency of any Proustian madeleine.

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