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Published:August 2nd, 2007 23:33 EST
Short History of Cassettes

Short History of Cassettes

By Krzys Wasilewski

When they first appeared in stores in 1963, they became an absolute hit. After years of impractical and fragile black platters, unbreakable compact cassettes with their magnitude of colors seemed like a twenty first-century answer for the needs of the 1960s. Although the upcoming millennium had other things in store, neither compact disks nor iPods have won as genuine admiration as their magnetic predecessors. 

The history of modern music began in 1953 when a young dandy from Mississippi recorded his first two songs. His name was Elvis Presley and in three years he would be the most recognizable celebrity in the world. When, at the beginning of 1956, his first single " Heartbreak Hotel " was released, nobody could question that the king was born. Around the same time, on the other side of the ocean, four teenagers from the industrial city of Liverpool formed a music band that would soon claim millions of female hearts and bankrupt male hairdressers. By 1970, the Beatles with their immortal hits " Yesterday, Love me do, Help and She loves you " would have sold more than 100 million copies of their albums, breaking all the world records. Their unheard of success sparked an enormous interest around the globe; music became universal.

It was obvious that the golden era of vinyl gramophone records (or LPs) was drawing to a close. The reasons were numerous. From their premiere in 1948 and until1963, the production process of black platters had not changed: it was still time-consuming and the final product was very fragile and prone to scratches. What is more, most LPs could register only 30 minutes of music, which could satisfy the pre-war audience but was disappointing for the rock and roll generation. In addition, the structure of vinyls made it impossible to use them for multiple recordings whereas the surge of the Beatles clones created an increasing demand for easily accessible formats. From New York to Moscow young people not only wanted to listen to their favorite songs, but dreamed of recording their own.

The solution was as simple as it was brilliant. As the United States Patent 4969611 read, the cassette includes upper and lower casing body half portions, and a window member secured to the upper casing body half portion. " The length of the tape depended on the time of a recording " usually 45 minutes per side, 90 minutes in total. The first cassette was introduced by the Dutch company Philips in 1963; the American premiere took place one year later. The company protected its patent and threatened to sue everyone who would like to produce their own cassettes.  However, facing mounting pressure from the competition " mainly from the Japanese " it was soon forced to license the format free of charge.

But the road from a magnetic type cassette " to music cassettes was long and difficult. At first,  Philips executives expected their new invention to attract journalists who desperately needed an easy tool to record their interviews. The romantic picture of a reporter " dressed in a gray coat and armed only with a notepad and a pencil " might look good in Humphrey Bogart`s movies; however, the reality was much gloomier. The tempo of life was increasing, the speed of obtaining information became the central point of journalism. Although the Dictaphone was invented as early as 1907, it had not become well-known until the introduction of compact cassettes. The Philips invention made it possible to considerably reduce the measurement of the Dictaphone " the original one was the size of a typewriter " and popularize it among journalists.

In 1963, Philips managed to sell only nine thousand copies of its new product. But only five years later there were almost 2.5 million cassettes on the market, with the Philips monopoly being effectively broken. Music cassettes " MCs " began to appear in stores in 1965. Among the first 49 albums released in the new format was the Fiddler On The Roof Broadway musical with the unforgettable Zero Mostel as the principal character, Tevye. Now, people could listen to the memorable melody of If I Were a Rich Man whenever and wherever they wanted, due to their cassette players, operated by batteries. Introduced along with cassettes in 1963, cassette players (aka cassette decks) were a symbol of their times; huge, silver cases or black portable desktops became an inseparable part of the outfit. The walkman " released by Sony in 1979 and a rage that everyone had to have "-- made music part of walks, jogging and even social meetings.

For many, the portability of cassettes was not a virtue but a main vice. To a number of music critics cassettes and cassette players were sacrilege since neither the shape nor the quality could compare to the perfection of vinyl plates. For years, upper echelons of the music industry had frowned upon those who preferred cheaper but of poor quality cassettes to the one and only true carrier of music, as LPs were labeled. One more thing divided society: new kinds of music-- sometimes very revolutionary-- that made it possible for an abundance of cassettes to pop up.

The emergence of punk rock revolutionized the music industry on an even larger scale than compact cassettes. In fact, the two lived in peculiar symbiosis " punk rock could have never been born without the invention of cassettes; cassettes would have never won such popularity had it not been for punk albums. In the 1950s, Elvis Presley epitomized the rebellious spirit of the post-war generation. The next decade belonged to the Beatles and their mop-top haircut. But in the 1970s and 1980s the king was dead and the golden boys from Liverpool looked like relics from an ancient epoch.

In the second half of the 20th century reigned the Sex Pistols and the rest of their evil ilk. Apart from their great talent to make noise and scandalize the public, they owed their enormous success (however hated this word was to them) to compact cassettes. Cassettes made it possible for Johnny Rotten and his friends to record their songs in their garage and later distribute them on their own. Until then, young bands had been forced to live at the mercy of giant recording corporations which very reluctantly decided to offer anyone new a chance. And suddenly cassettes gave them freedom to record songs to their hearts` content and sell them on the street corner, far away from the ossified music industry. Unsurprisingly, the end of punk rock coincided with the twilight of cassettes. The early 1990s set not only a new fashion which rejected tattered jeans and combat boots, but new trends in music, with Vanilla Ice and the New Kids On The Block playing the first strings.

But until one of the disenchanted fans said punk is not`s just taking a nap, " cassettes had been enjoying their golden age. They had crossed all boundaries " social, cultural, and geographical. Notwithstanding economic status, the affluent and poor alike made their stereo systems the central points of their houses with the latest cassette hits on the shelves. Cultural walls collapsed when musical high spheres finally gave up and stated that the difference between the cassette Bach and the vinyl Bach was not so obvious. When it came to geography, not even the Iron Curtain could stop the flow of cassettes from the West to the East and vice versa. Before the cassette era, anyone in the Socialist Bloc who had a Beatles album enjoyed the status equal to that of the singers whose vinyl he had. With the first cassettes, this monopoly disappeared. The easiness with which cassettes could be copied " one only needed to have a cassette deck " spread capitalist music to the most distant regions of the Soviet Union. It could be said that cassettes made music truly international.

Computer users lacked the romanticism of rock and roll fans. They used cassettes simply because there were no other alternatives. Both of the first personal computers-- the ZX Spectrum in Great Britain and the Commodore 64 in the United States-- were equipped with cassette recorders which were the equivalent to modern CD/DVD players. However ingenious it was, cassettes were the cause of a deep frustration among ancient computer geeks: to load software recorded on cassettes, one had to find a specific part of the tape (indicated on a recorder`s counter), press the play " button and wait for anywhere from several minutes up to a half an hour- " depending on the size of a program or game. As even a molecular vibration could spoil loading, it usually took several tries to have the process completed successfully. Needless to say, the moment floppy disks became cheap enough for ordinary users, the divorce between computers and cassettes was smooth and quick.

Cassettes reached their peak of popularity in the second half of the 1980s, when almost five hundred million copies per year were sold in the United States alone. As soon as compact disks appeared in stores in 1986, however, the popularity of the magnetic units began to fade. At the onset of the 21st century, all major companies made a decision to cease mass production of cassettes. What was a technological advancement in the second half of the past century became obsolete in the new millennium. But although shelves of cassettes have disappeared from most stores, a great number of people still keep them at home as a reminder of their youth.

Cassettes have never been perfect and this is probably where their strength lies.

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