The Rise and Renaissance of the Cassette Tape

By Danielle Cordovez, Music and Recorded Sound Division
February 23, 2023
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A black cassette tape with designs on the cover
Melville in Jerusalem by Maharadja Sweets

The cassette tape has made a comeback in recent years—a media format that reached the height of its popularity in the 1980s, is relevant today. We are in an era of old sound format appreciation, and the cassette tape is the format of the moment once again. The renewed interest has prompted major commercial and independent record labels to release music in this vintage format. Mainstream artists like Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and underground artists like NYPL's own Ben Boogz and Maharadja Sweets all have taken part in the cassette revival and released music on this format. What is the reason for this resurgence of cassette worship? To explore this question, I curated two exhibit cases about the history of the compact cassette and its cultural impact with items from the Music and Recorded Sound Division featuring various cassette tapes, players, recorders, and advertisements. 

The compact cassette, commonly known as a cassette tape, is an analog media format developed in 1962 by the Dutch inventor and engineer Lou Ottens for the Philips Company. Initially marketed for dictation, the cassette tape was notably smaller than a pack of cigarettes, with a capacity for significant data storage, making it a suitable format for pre-recorded music. The cassette tape became the standard audio format from the late 1970s to the early 90s after the first portable cassette tape players were made available to the general public to record, share, and play music conveniently.

The first portable cassette tape player to gain popularity was the Sony Walkman. This small, mobile, inexpensive handheld device allowed people to listen to cassette tapes and AM/FM radio with headphones. The Sony Walkman revolutionized how people listened to music because it allowed people to hear pre-recorded audio or the radio on one device on the go.

Another major innovation in cassette culture was the boombox. Larger than the Sony Walkman but also portable, it often contained one or two decks that recorded and played cassette tapes. A prominent feature of the boombox was the oversized speakers, which rivaled the technology of the home stereo system in the 1980s. The boombox's portability, ability to record, and deliver strong bass made it an integral part of Hip-Hop culture, as it was used to play music for breakdancing and battle raps and was an inexpensive way to create demonstration or "demo" tapes for aspiring rappers and DJs.

An interesting cultural phenomenon birthed in the era of the original boombox was the mixtape, which resulted from the ability to record songs on cassette tapes from the boombox radio. The mixtape empowered people of all ages to curate playlists for themselves or others. It changed how we listen to music and is the precursor to streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify.

The Music and Recorded Sound Division holds over 15,000 cassettes which consist of commercial and self-published music, promotional, spoken word, interviews, live performances, and more! 

Come check out our two-case installation dedicated to cassette culture on the third-floor reading room at the Library for the Performing Arts.