If you're like most people, you probably haven't given the cassette much thought in years. Oh, you may still have a box of them stashed in the back of your closet, filled with such last-century smashes as the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and Paula Abdul's Forever Your Girl. But you long ago moved on to CDs and probably moved on again to downloading. So why should you care that this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the cassette?
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."
The affection that many hold for the cassette (and such related phenomenon as mix-tapes) is evidenced in many popular movies and books. The image of John Cusack hoisting a boom-box over his head in the 1989 movie Say Anything… is iconic. Other movies and books to salute cassettes include High Fidelity, Wayne's World and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
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 pulled ahead of 8-track tapes to become the leading tape format for the first time in 1980, according to figures compiled by the Recording Industry Assn. of America. Cassettes pulled ahead of LPs and EPs to become the top overall format in 1983.
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.)
But even after CDs surpassed cassettes in total U.S. shipments, cassettes continued to sell very well. Here's a surprise: The best-selling albums of 1992, 1993 and 1994 each sold more cassette copies than they did CD copies in those calendar years, according to Nielsen SoundScan stats. Here are the details. Billy Ray Cyrus' Some Gave All, the best-selling album of 1992, sold 3,589,000 cassettes and just 1,242,000 CDs. Whitney Houston's The Bodyguard soundtrack, the best-selling album of 1993, sold 2,977,000 cassettes and 2,621,000 CDs. The Lion King soundtrack, the best-selling album of 1994, sold 2,627,000 cassettes and 2,307,000 CDs.
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.
Millennium, Britney Spears' …Baby One More Time and Shania Twain's Come On Over (all in 1999) were the last albums to sell 1 million cassette copies in a calendar year. After that, things went downhill quickly for cassettes. Shaggy's Hotshot, in 2001, was the last album to sell 250K cassette copies in a calendar year.
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.
Here are the albums that were #1 on Billboard's "year-end" chart recaps in each of the nine years that cassettes were the top album configuration. 1983 and 1984: Michael Jackson's Thriller; 1985: Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A.; 1986: Whitney Houston's Whitney Houston; 1987: Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet; 1988: George Michael's Faith; 1989: Bobby Brown's Don't Be Cruel; 1990: Janet Jackson's Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814; 1991: Mariah Carey's Mariah Carey.
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).
Here are the most popular songs in each of the eight years that cassette singles were the top song configuration (source notes below): 1989: Chicago's "Look Away"; 1990: Wilson Phillips' "Hold On"; 1991: Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do It For You); 1992: Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You"; 1993: Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)"; 1994: Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love To You"; 1995: "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio featuring L.V.; 1996: Los Del Rio's "Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)."
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.)