August 5, 2021

The return of the cassette, a phenomenon that surprised even its inventor

The novelty that is no longer so. In music stores around the world, where until recently there were only CDs, now there are vinyl … and cassettes. (Twitter)

“Communism doesn’t work because people love to own things,” the lucid Frank Zappa once said. The musician was right on both counts. But what he surely did not imagine at the time of his death, almost three decades ago, is that the films that were beginning to go out of style in those days would reincarnate to give life to a triumphant return. As with vinyl, now installed again and absolutely, the return of the cassette is already a fact.

In October of last year, we published in PanAm Post “The economic lesson of the return of vinyl records”, reviewing the theoretical questions of economics, which exist behind the unplanned universe of people’s individual preferences. Those that only the free market can interpret and that the Austrian school explained so well. However, nowadays another retro phenomenon was taking place in the world. In the United Kingdom, during 2020, more cassettes were sold than in 2003, at the time of its (temporary?) Disappearance. The same pattern that was registered with the LPs, which had their last year of hegemony in 1986, but which today are listed more than ever. Not only are they collected and listened to, but they generate a kind of devotion in their loyal audiences.

Before the explosion last year, something was already sensing that it was about to happen. Cassette sales in the United States had grown by 35% in 2017 and 23% in 2018. But this fact, which was taking more and more consistency, seemed to be limited to old collecting, a few reissues and a few releases in the format.

To this day, artists realized that the business is no longer just digital, so they also launch their productions on compact discs, on cassette and on vinyl. Like thirty years ago, when the three formats coincided simultaneously. Those were the days of the agony of vinyl, the struggle for the survival of the cassette and the heyday of the compact disc, which never finished dying, but which, curiously, for now awakens less fetish than its two predecessors.

The surprise and misunderstanding of its inventor

Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer responsible for the invention that made music more portable and economical, died in March, aged 94, amid the unexpected resurgence of his creation. In several interviews during his last years of life, he was surprised by the validity of his invention, presented to the public in Berlin in 1963. “Our goal was to work on a pocket recorder, so the invention had to fit in the side pocket of my jacket ”, explained the manager who worked for Philips. Its production began in 1964, but exploded in 1969, following the release of a Mercury Records catalog.

In one of his last public statements, honored, but distancing himself from a phenomenon he could not understand, Ottens said that the revival of the cassette was “absurd”. Sure, he thought of a format that is more portable than long play, inexpensive and rewritable. He devised a revolutionary invention from logic. But what brought him back was none of that, but nostalgia. And that was not put by Ottens to the product, it was contributed by the people who today want elements, among their most precious belongings, that represent a symbol of complicity associated with more youthful times.