It was an invention that changed the way we listen to music.
Until 1963, the only way to hear recorded music was with a record player or a radio. Listening to records was limited to your collection and the location of your record player. Listening to music on the radio was limited to what they wanted you to hear.
That changed when Phillips Electronics stepped up to the plate, led by Dutch inventor Lou Ottens, and debuted the audio cassette tape. A compact, portable version of a reel-to-reel tape, it fits in the palm of your hand and could be used to record anything, then played back on the same device.
Ottens, who was the head of Phillips Product Development, passed away in early March at 94. He developed and presented the portable audio tape at the Berlin Radio Electronics Fair in 1963. It has sold over 100 Billion units since then.
The cassette tape allowed you to become your own DJ. Now you could select songs from different artists, or other albums, putting together what we affectionately called a “mix tape.” Sometimes, it was a collection of your favorite songs or it was a theme tape, like Summer Songs or Love Songs.
For the first time, you were able to take your favorite music with you wherever you went. Most cars in the ‘70s came equipped with cassette players and most of us had a Sony Walkman at some point. Cassette tapes were played in a boom box, blasting your music loud and long, provided you had enough D-cell batteries.
Mix tapes came from your soul. They were also a lot of work. You meticulously selected the perfect songs and organized them in the order you wanted them to be heard. The timing for a mix tape was vital. You had to be aware of each song’s length so you wouldn’t go over the 45 (or 30) minute limit on each side. Conversely, you never wanted to leave too much dead space on the end of the tape. Timing a mix tape required a new set of mathematical skills they didn’t teach in high school.
You couldn’t just add 3:42 and 3:35 together using conventional math, which would come to 6:77. When calculating 60-minute increments, the total time for those two songs is actually 7:17. It was impossible to judge how much time was left by looking at the tape reel through the little window.
Cassette tapes also gave us our first foray into music piracy, but we never looked at it as stealing. When your friend brought home the new Stones album, you showed up with a cassette tape. While you listened to it together, you recorded it. Sometimes you would split the cost of an album, but only one of you would get to keep the vinyl. Both sides of an album were almost always close to the 45-minute limit on one side of the 90-minute cassette. Then you asked him to record another album on the other side.
The music industry hated cassette tapes because of this. They didn’t want you buying just one album and sharing it. They wanted everyone to buy their own copy.
But they got back at us in the end, didn’t they?
When the compact disc became a thing in the ‘80s, everyone bought another copy of just about every record they ever owned. Granted, we could get 12 CDs for a penny with Columbia House or BMG. I spent most of my adult life trying to fulfill my commitment of buying 10 more CDs at the “retail” price.
The ironic thing about CDs is that Phillips Electronics also developed them. Since their release in 1982, more than 200 billion have been sold. Want to know who the head of the CD development team was?
Good ‘ole Louie Ottens.
Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.