For years, people used to pop little rectangular pieces of plastic into their stereos. Their little wheels would spin, and as result, music would pump through the speakers. It was the musical equivalent to the VHS tape and they were everywhere – at home, in over-the-shoulder boomboxes, Walkmans attached to people’s hips and automobiles of all shapes and sizes.
Press play: the rise of the cassette tape
The cassette tape was released in 1963, but the popularity of the rectangle with spindles didn’t reach mass proportions until the 70s and 80s. Not only was it significantly smaller than it’s predecesors, reel-to-reel tapes or 8-tracks, they were also incredibly versatile. You could pop into Sam Goody or Camelot and pick up your favorite band’s new release or you could get a blank tape and make your own radio mixtape or concert bootleg.
For more than two decades (give or take), the cassette tape was the format for the music industry. It’s amazing to look back and imagine people constantly rewinding and fast forwarding their cassette tapes to find the song they wanted to listen to. And while it shared a long and successful reign, it eventually met its demise at the hands of the compact disc (CD).
Stop & eject: the decline of the cassette tape
In the early 80s, a new recording technology was released to the masses. The CD made its world debut. Instantly, the shiny little circle could hold more data and there was no inconvenience of having to rewind or fast forward through album tracks. Listeners could simply skip a track just like that with a simple push of a button. It was like music magic.
However, in 1982 the cassette tape had an incredible stranglehold on the music industry and it wasn’t ready to go down without a fight. People weren’t ready to just ditch their cassette tape library and start over just because a newcomer had emerged. After a few years though, people began to realize the future was going digital, and the CD seemed to take over the industry almost overnight. By the early-mid 90s, the CD was no longer just the new kid on the block. It owned the block, and the cassette tape was the has-been.
The circle repeats itself
The interesting thing about technology isn’t so much that it’s always improving. It’s that we as a society are so willing to ditch what had worked for so long for the shiny new thing. It’s a vicious circle where the obsolete waits to prey on its next outdated victim. That couldn’t be more true for the CD. After taking over the reins from the cassette tape, the CD looked invincible. Unstoppable. And for a good 15 years or so, it was. But then streaming services started to pop up and before the CD was even aware, it was already halfway out the door.