Vinyl is seeing a revival in the UK, particularly amongst music collectors: sales grew for the eighth consecutive year to reach more than 2.1 million last year. But who thought the same could happen to cassette tapes? A new factory has now opened in the US – not even Lou Ottens, the inventor of the compact cassette, could anticipate a revival of his creation. Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape unveils some aspects of the new cassette cult.
After three years collecting interviews of cassette lovers, DJs in the US and in Britain, bands and radio presenters, Zack Taylor had enough material to make a documentary. He thought of making a film just on cassette piracy, and another one on bands that cannot afford the costs of a studio and still use cassette as a medium to market their songs. But then Taylor found out that the inventor of the cassette was still alive in Netherlands. Lou Ottens is central to the film narrative.
Still very active, despite being an octogenarian, Ottens tells the filmmaker why he had that idea: “I am always driven by frustration, by things that don’t work”. Before 1963, the magnetic tapes were enormous devices and not very practical to use. Often recordings were damaged and tapes enrolled in a complicated maze. A year after Ottens created the compact cassette, Japanese technicians were copying it. So Philips and Ottens worked together to develop a standard medium in which everyone could easily personalise their recordings. It took 50 years to die; and maybe it is not entirely dead.
Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore explains that “for him the cassette has to do with the sonic atmosphere. It sounds best. I feel the sound more emotional [compared to CDs]”. Another aspect that conquered many collectors was that for the first time people could record their favourite songs in the order they wanted. They would dedicate it to lovers and family members too. Besides, it was possible to decorate the cassette case individually. It is clear that the nostalgic movement has more to do with people and memories than with the technology itself. In fact, when asked if Ottens misses his invention he denies it. He misses the team of people he used to work with.
A single factory in Missouri has now replaced Philips, Sony and BASF in the once thriving cassette business, and its workers may seem lunatic and nostalgic. Henry Rollins, an American musician, actor, radio host and formerly frontman of the California hardcore punk band Black Flag disagrees: “CDs sanitised the world of music”.
A similar nostalgic and obsolete technology in the entertainment world was explored this year in a documentary. The Lost Arcade (Kurt Vincent) visited the few surviving video game arcades in the US – click here for our review of the film.
Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape is part of East End Film Festival, which is taking place currently in London – just check our their website for more information. The film is currently seeking a distributor in the UK – click here for more information about the movie.
You can watch the film trailer below: