Because cassettes were a game-changing configuration. They allowed music fans to take music with them in a way that vinyl LPs and reel-to-reel tapes never did. They allowed fans to make their own tapes of favorite songs and artists and share them with friends. That simple act of self-expression made music more interactive than it had ever been.
Cassettes were introduced by the Dutch company Philips at a 1963 radio exhibition in Berlin. "It was a big surprise for the market," said Lou Ottens, who led the product's development. "It was so small in comparison with reel-to-reel recorders that it was at that moment a sensation." A Philips press release at the time noted that a cassette tape was smaller than a pack of cigarettes. (That was a timely frame of reference in an era when smoking was prevalent—as we've seen on Mad Men.)
In a 50th anniversary salute last month, TIME's Lily Rothman waxed poetic: "What now seems like a relic was a revolution in a plastic case."
Writer Rob Sheffield used mix-tapes as the organizing principle in his 2007 memoir Love Is A Mix Tape: Life And Loss, One Song At A Time. The book uses 15 mix-tapes to frame the story of his courtship and marriage to Renee Crist.
Filmmakers Seth Smoot and Zack Taylor crowd-funded a documentary about tapes called Cassette, which is nearing completion.
The word "cassette" has even found its way into pop lyrics. Bette Midler dismisses an errant lover in her 1977 hit "You're Movin' Out Today" by giving him a list of things to pack up which includes "your funny cigarettes/your sixty-one cassettes."
Cassettes were the leading album configuration for nine straight years, from 1983 through 1991 (after which they were supplanted by CDs). Cassettes were a meaningful part of the market even longer. They represented at least 5% of total U.S. music shipments for 24 straight years, from 1977 through 2000.
Cassettes peaked in 1988, when they represented 59.1% of total U.S. music shipments. (All of the above figures are from the RIAA.)
The sales picture flipped in 1995. That year's best-selling album, Hootie & the Blowfish's Cracked Rear View, sold 5,111,000 CDs and just 1,908,000 cassettes. This pattern accelerated as the decade progressed. The best-selling album of 1999, Backstreet Boys' Millennium, sold 8,301,000 CDs and just 1,145,000 cassettes.
You may have read that cassettes are making a comeback. That's wishful thinking. The last cassette to sell even 50K copies in a calendar year was the Wiggles' kiddie title, Yummy Yummy in 2004.
Cassette singles (sometimes known as "cassingles") were the leading configuration for singles for eight straight years, from 1989 (when they took over from vinyl singles) through 1996 (after which they were supplanted by CD singles). Cassette singles peaked in 1990, when they represented 10.1% of total U.S. music shipments (again, per the RIAA).
Source notes: 1989-1991: Billboard's "year-end" Hot 100 recaps. 1992-1996: Nielsen SoundScan's lists of the best-selling singles of those calendar years. (They don't have separate breakdowns for cassette singles.)
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