What we know of as the cassette tape first hit the market in 1963 in Europe and 1964 in the United States under the trademark name Compact Cassette. But it wasn’t the first magnetic tape for sound recording—that was developed by German engineer Fritz Pfleumer in 1928. AEG introduced the first commercial tape recorder in 1935 with its reel-to-reel machine, which, until the 1960s, was unwieldy, prohibitively expensive, and largely used by recording studios and radio stations. In the late 1950s, RCA and other companies attempted to market large tape cartridges, but never found much success.
The Dutch technology company Philips invented its Compact Cassette in 1962 for the purposes of recording speech. But late in 1965, “Musicassettes” or prerecorded music cassettes were introduced in Europe. A U.S. affiliate of Philips, Mercury Records, brought 49 albums on Musicassettes or “M.C.” to the United States in July of 1966.
However, the sound quality of these early cassette tapes was inferior to that of Stereo 8 or eight-track tapes. Those larger tape cartridges had been developed in the early 1960s by Bill Lear of Learjet in order to play music on his jet planes. By 1965, eight-track players were offered as an option on three 1966 Ford models, and RCA produced 175 eight-track cartridges of music. Home eight-track players came out the following year, and because they could be played both at home and in the car, eight-tracks started to take a bite out of the vinyl-record market.
Musicassettes, meanwhile, didn’t get much of a foothold in the market until 1971, when Advent Corporation released its Model 201 tape deck with Dolby tape B noise reduction and a commercial-grade tape transport mechanism. Cassette manufacturers also started making high-grade tape out of chromium dioxide coated in magnetite. This marked the first generation of the high-fidelity cassette tape and players. That same year, a copyright ruling in the U.S. Congress made home taping legal, thus increasing the market for blank tapes.
This new recordable medium gave regular people the power to document the sounds of their lives. All they needed were blank tapes and a cassette recorder. And because they were so lightweight, cassette tapes were easy to mail. Some people, like soldiers serving in the Vietnam War simply sent letters in the forms of tape to friends and family. In India, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, cassette tapes were used to exchange taboo political speeches, religious ideas, and poetry—which is how the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini reached a mostly illiterate population before the Iranian Revolution started in 1978. And it was tape that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.
While eight-tracks and vinyl dominated the market for prerecorded music in the 1970s, music fans, too, exploited this improved technology to make bootleg recordings of live concerts and music from the radio, LPs, and other cassettes. Those who had dual-cassette decks often created mixes of their favorite songs, and put them together on mixtapes. At the same time, unsigned musicians and other artists embraced the cassette tape as a medium for expression. Bands that were fed up with the label system made their own tape demos and cassettes to sell at their shows. Cassette tapes were embraced by leftists, anarchists, and antifascists, especially in Eastern Europe and California who saw them as a democratic, anti-capitalist format.
Nashville musician and poet R. Stevie Moore—the son of bassist Bob Moore, who played with Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley—began recording and mailing music on cassette tapes starting in 1968, and in 1971, he dropped out of school to focus on his tape-making venture, which came to be known as Cassette Club. Anyone who sent in $8 would receive a tape of unique music by Moore. Other musicians like British agit-prop anarchist Martin Newell, British synthesizer player Paul Kelday, and Welsh saxophonist Barry Edgar Pilcher sold their tapes through music fan zines. Labels like The Third Mind, Rough Trade, and SubPop all got their start releasing music only on cassette...
In the burgeoning 1970s New York City hip-hop scene, aspiring emcees would use tape recorders to copy a song’s breakdown rhythm, known as a “break beat,” off an LP and then make a tape that repeated the break beat. The rappers would then record themselves rapping over the continuous beat they’d created. These cassettes became known as “pause-button tapes.” The freestyle rapping and scratching at underground hip-hop parties would be recorded onto cassette tape and passed around. Those original tapes were copied over and over again.
In 1969, Philips started to develop tape decks that ran on batteries and could still play music when they weren’t plugged. In the early ’70s, this concept evolved into the boombox, also known as the “ghettoblaster” or “jambox.” In the hip-hop community, homemade music and party tapes were shared in public spaces: A young artist would hoist a boombox on his shoulder and carry it as he walked through his neighborhood.
In 1973, Richard Branson’s Virgin Records released German krautrock band Faust’s album, “The Faust Tapes” for 49 pence, and this marketing gimmick sold 50,000 cheaply made and low-sound quality tapes in the United Kingdom. Starting in the mid-1970s, both Faust and British industrial band Throbbling Gristle were among the first tape “networkers” sending and soliciting cassettes through the mail. Throbbing Gristle’s mail-only label put out early cassettes by Clock DVA and Cabaret Voltaire. In 1980, the band released an attaché case of 24 cassettes, with their recordings dubbed over ABBA tapes.
Tapes also allowed political prisoners to release contraband music. In Czechoslovakia in the mid-1970s, the Plastic People of the Universe started to produce and perform songs advocating individuality, which angered the country’s totalitarian Communist regime. In 1976, band members were arrested, tried, and put in jail for “disturbing the peace.” Thanks to tapes, the Plastics were able to smuggle their music in and out of jail, and also outside the Iron Curtain.
Back in the United States, Northern California avant-garde art and music collective The Residents sold cassettes via mail to members of their fan club, which numbered about 100. The label then started Ralph Records, and its radio show, Ralph’s Radio Special, encouraged fans to send in their own tapes to broadcast. Similarly, Weird Al Yankovic got his start in the early 1980s on a similar San Francisco show, “No Other Radio,” hosted by the Mutant’s John Gullak. Yankovic would record himself playing accordion in his bathroom and send in the tape. Another San Francisco experimental music and art group, Negativland, used cassette tapes to record music and sound bites from the radio and other mainstream media and re-mixing them.
By 1978, cassette tapes had gone through two more generations of material improvement, which only made the sound quality better. But the year 1979 was huge for cassette tapes and so-called “cassette culture.” First, it was the year the influential music fanzine “OP Magazine” debuted; the publication solicited do-it-yourself tape recordings for critical review. Soon, other zines like Option, Sound Choice, Factsheet 5, and Unsound were established to celebrate homemade and independent-label tapes. Second, four-track cassette tape recorders with music-studio controls by Tascam and Fostex hit the market. Third, Sony introduced its Walkman, a portable cassette player just barely larger than the tape itself—the smallest and lightest cassette player ever invented.
Thus, the homemade tape-trade culture flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s, and independent tape-only labels popped up everywhere, including Hal McGee’s Cause and Effect, Randy Grief’s Swinging Axe Productions, Mike Jackson’s XKurzhen Sound, and Al Margolis’ Sound of Pig. Neil Cooper’s ReachOut International Records (ROIR), founded in 1981, was the first cassette-only label to put out albums by established artists, and its Bad Brains release became the best-selling cassette-only album in the United States, with more than 27,000 tapes sold.
In 1980, British new wave band Bow Wow Wow, managed by Malcolm McLaren, put out a cassette single, “C30, C60, C90 Go,” featuring a blank B-side so the fans could tape their own music on the cassette. The band’s major label, EMI, shortly dropped the band, and the rumor is that it was because the single encouraged home-taping.
That decade, German electronic musician Conrad Schnitzler turned the tape into a live-music instrument, playing his “Kassttenorgel,” (Cassette Organ) featuring two cabinets of six stereo tape decks connected to one stereo speaker set. He would also wear a belt of Walkmans and use them for a similar effect. In the United States, Robin James also incorporated cassettes into live performances. Around the same time, Antenna Theater in Northern California created the idea of educational cassettes and audio guides. Cassettes were used in both art installations and field recordings in the 1980s and 1990s.
Other musicians and artists developed concept of “bicycling.” One musician would put down a couple tracks on a four-track recorder, and then mail the cassette to another musician somewhere else in the world. Such collaborations were thought off as “global bands.” A musician named Zan Hoffman would remix music sent to him, and then release no more than five copies of each tape to the mail network. In 1988 alone, he put out 120 of these.
During the 1980s, tape-cassette albums and cassette singles, or “cassingles,” were hugely popular formats for the public buying pre-recorded music released by major labels. Cassettes even surpassed the popularity of vinyl in sales in the United Kingdom. Still, the popularity of copying albums from cassette to cassette or listening to homemade recordings took a bite out of the music industry. In 1985, the British Phonographic Industry (the U.K.’s version of the RIAA) started a campaign called “Home Taping Is Killing Music.”
As Philips’ new digital music format known as the Compact Disc started to catch on in the late 1980s, it spelled doom for the cassette tape in the major-label world. The recordable CD-R was introduced in 1990, threatening tape’s status as the go-to recordable medium. The sales of pre-recorded albums on CD supplanted those of cassette tapes in the early 1990s. In the 2000s, MP3s and computers that burned music on CD-Rs offered a new medium for mixing. Between 1990 and 2009, sales of cassette tapes with pre-recorded music dropped from 442 million units to 34,000 in the United States.
Now in the 2010s, “cassette culture” is experiencing a revival in the underground music world, as anti-consumerist musicians and artists reject the new digital landscape of cloud music and smartphones. New cassette-only independent labels like Burger Records, GODMODE Records, and Night-People have emerged, putting out music by punk, noise, experimental, and electronic bands. Burger has even re-released limited-editions of older albums by bands like Television Personalities and Velvet Underground.