Alas, Cassettes, We Hardly Knew Ye

I regret to inform you of the passing of the Compact Cassette. At the age of 45 (that's about 135 in technology years) the cassette finally succumbed to market forces. Cause of death, tragically, was the cassette's own offspring, the Compact Disc. In addition, digital downloading is suspected of foul play.

The Compact Cassette was developed by Philips and introduced in Europe in 1963 and in the U.S. in 1964. The cassette (cassette is a French word meaning 'little box') was originally designed as a dictation device, but technical improvements (such as Dolby B noise reduction) made the cassette suitable for music recording and playback. Partly because Philips gave out cassette licenses for free, and partly because of the Sony Walkman (the iPod of its day) the cassette became extremely popular and challenged the LP as the music carrier of choice.  The ability to record custom mixes on cassettes was a huge plus, particularly because the LP was a playback-only medium. The zenith of cassette technology was perhaps Nakamichi's Dragon cassette deck that offered excellent (for its day) sound quality.

Then Philips introduced the Compact Disc (borrowing the term 'Compact' from the previous invention) and the days of the cassette were numbered, particularly when recordable CDs became available. As music cassettes faded away, the cassette lingered on in the form of audio books, sales dwindling.

Recently, in the New York offices of publisher Hachette (the same outfit that owns Sound & Vision), a 'funeral' was held to mourn the passing of this 'dear friend.'  As reported by Andrew Adam Newman in The New York Times....

The funeral at Hachette, actually a flimsy excuse for yet another office party, was held in the audio-book department. Books on cassette still have a small following mainly because it is easy to stop them and restart in the same place, but at Hachette demand had fallen and it released its last book "Sail," a novel by James Patterson and Howard Roughan, in June.

According to the Times article, the Consumer Electronics Association says sales of portable tape players peaked at 18 million in 1994, and sank to 480,000 in 2007. The CEA predicts that sales will fall to 86,000 in 2012. Cassette players were de facto in automobiles, and millions of older cars still have them, but only 4 percent of vehicles sold in the U. S. during the 2007 model year had factory-installed cassette players. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, only 400,000 music tapes were sold last year, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of all physical and digital music. That compares, for example, to U.S. sales of music cassettes of 442 million in 1990.

Still, virtually every home (or at least their U-Stor-It shed) in America (and around the world) has one or more cassette players, and a sack of cassettes. And companies such as Sony still offer cassette players, ranging from the Walkman to boomboxes. And the cassette lingers; Blackstone Audio and Recorded Books still publish hundreds of audio books, albeit in declining numbers, accounting for 7 percent of all sales in the $923 million audio-book industry in 2006.

Interestingly, music on vinyl is seeing a resurgence (although still a tiny fraction of all sales). Sadly, the cassette will probably not experience the same rebirth. Not as retro as vinyl, and not as modern as iTunes, it is stuck in a 1980's time warp that few people will want to revisit.

The cassette, like its cousin the eight-track tape, has gone to a better place. -Ken C. Pohlmann