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Complete Collector: Cassettes survive against all odds

Without doubt, the cassette is the poor relation of the collecting world. Why?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a series exploring different music collectible formats. Part I delved into acetates; click here to read about acetates now!

Without doubt, the cassette is the poor relation of the collecting world. Whereas every other format — even such utter obscurities as Pocket Rockers and 4-Track cartridges — has its die-hard adherents, the cassette remains despised and derided.

Part of this undoubtedly is due to the poor quality with which cassettes traditionally have been manufactured. Even in the early 1970s, when standards were beefed up to compete with (and eventually overthrow) the 8-Track cartridge, cassettes were markedly inferior to their counterparts in terms of packaging, durability and sound quality.

They triumphed because they were cheaper (both to produce and to purchase), and because most listeners were simply looking for a format which could be easily transported, readily accessed and devoured little space. Four cassettes can fit into the storage space required by an 8-Track, a major consideration in such confined quarters as an automobile or a student dorm room.

In addition, cassettes possessed a versatility that the 8-Track would not embrace for several years to come. They could be utilized for both playing and recording, the first genuinely affordable recording medium in the history of consumer electronics; and they could store more music. The first tapes could hold up to 90 minutes. By the early 1970s, that had increased to two hours. Weighed against the fact that few potential cassette buyers were numbered among the high-end audio buffs to whom actual fidelity is of paramount importance, such advantages ensured the format could not lose.

Cassettes were developed by the Philips and Norelco companies during the early 1960s, originally for use in Dictaphones and other business machines. Japan was the first nation to adapt the technology as an alternative to vinyl, and Europe followed suit around 1966.

There, cassettes were marketed alongside small, portable battery-operated players much the same way as PlayTapes were in the U.S. The following year, when the first auto manufacturers began offering cassette players as in-dash accessories, the format moved onto the American market, as well.

By the end of the 1960s, pre-recorded cassette sales were running all but neck and neck with 8-Tracks; PlayTapes and 4-Tracks had both already given up the ghost. By the mid-1970s, it was a one-horse race.

Adjustments to both the quality and reliability of cassettes vastly improved their performance, ridding the format of its early penchant for jamming, twisting and fluttering. The Dolby Noise Reduction system was perfected to erase the hiss that plagued early tapes, and, as the 1970s progressed, further innovations in the actual composition of the magnetic tape itself gave the format the aura of quality sound reproduction. Reel-to-reel tapes marched on in their own tiny corner of the market, of course, their share of the listening public as unaffected by cassettes as by any earlier tape format. But from here on, the cassette was unstoppable.

Attempts continually were being made to broaden the cassette’s appeal even further. So far, cassettes had simply echoed the contents of their vinyl counterparts. Beginning around 1979, cassette-only bonus tracks came into vogue — one of the best known early examples is the Kinks’ 1980 double live album One For The Road (Arista 8401), which was issued