The cassette tape is so ubiquitous, so much a part of my life since I can even remember music as a thing, that it was a shock to find out that the man who invented it, Lou Ottens, passed away at the age of 94. Of course, somebody did have to invent the cassette tape, but in all these years I never thought to look the person up. Such an invention first makes you think of the world before it: records (dearly beloved, still around), and reel-to-reel tape (not so dearly beloved). The former was a fixed object, an art object, immutable (until turntablists came along). The latter was a way to record ourselves, but so much more was involved in the act. People had to wind the spindle, to thread the tape through the capstan and heads, and record usually in mono. You can see an overview of a model from the 1950s here.
Ottens was a Dutch engineer working at Philips who became head of new product development in Hasselt, Belgium. His assignment was to shrink the reel-to-reel and, like the radio, make it more portable. And here is the most important decision: Ottens wanted the format to be licensed to other manufacturers for free, so everybody could partake. Considering the endless format battles that we fight every day, this decision was as monumental as it was humanist.
He designed his prototype out of wood and sized it to fit into a pocket for true portability. (This prototype, by the way, disappeared from history after he used it to prop up a jack when fixing a flat tire.) The actual compact cassette, promoted as a cheaper and smaller format for major label releases, immediately gained a second life as an artistic tool: a way for regular folk to record whatever they wanted. Keith Richards reportedly recorded the riff for “Satisfaction” on the portable cassette player near his bed. People recorded lectures, the television, the radio, their relatives, their friends, the random sound of life. People started to curate: their favorite music, their favorite people, their favorite sounds. People pretended to be DJs, pretended to be artists, pretended to be television hosts, pretended to be authors, pretended to be critics. And some through pretending became the things they wanted to be.
People made mixtapes for friends and for lovers. They looked at the remaining tape on the spindle and wondered if the song they had to end side two would fit. People realized that cassette tape could be a collage of sounds, cut up by the pause button.
Ottens may not have realized it, but he had created a completely democratic format. In the 1980s, the back pages of music magazines flourished with the catalogs of cassette-only album releases. If you had a Walkman and a friend with a halfway decent tape recorder, you could carry around your favorite music and listen to it whenever you wanted.
The record industry rebelled (for a while). They wanted you to know that “home taping is killing music” but did so with a skull and bones graphic that made it that much cooler. In the end it didn’t really matter. The music fans repurchased everything on CD anyway. (Apart from the people who taped CDs and even then after that *those* people downloaded the mp3s.)
And here’s the thing. Ottens wasn’t precious about any of it. He was part of the development of the Compact Disc. The cassette was just another stepping stone.
But despite the numerous articles that cassettes were a dead medium, they kept coming back. Mixtapes, the lifeblood of hip hop culture continued to thrive, even if by the end of the century the idea was more of a concept. And then in the middle of the 2010s cassettes came roaring back after the vinyl resurgence. For bands it was a cheap way to provide a physical product, what with vinyl still being very expensive to produce. Bandcamp, the place to go for cassette-only releases, offers artistic tapes for the same price as a digital download. So why not get both and start your library again?
Ottens never foresaw any of this happening, but it speaks to something very human: we want control of our music, and digital music, especially in the cloud, ain’t cutting it. We want to hold something in our hands and claim it as our own.
So pour one out for Lou Ottens, who started a revolution that hasn’t finished. Do *not* press pause.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.