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Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette tape, dies at 94

The Dutch engineer invited the concept of the cassette tape in the early 1960s and later helped pioneer CD's.
/ Source: Reuters

Lou Ottens, an engineer who invited the concept of the cassette tape in the early 1960s and later helped develop compact discs, died Saturday at 94, according to news reports from the Netherlands.

Ottens was working for Philips when the company unveiled cassettes at a 1963 radio exhibition in Berlin. Prior to the cassette, audio enthusiasts looking for portability had to rely on much bulkier recorders and players; there was never such a thing as a reel-to-reel Walkman for a reason.

"It was a big surprise for the market," Ottens, then 87, said in a 2013 Time magazine story that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the medium being introduced. "It was so small in comparison with reel-to-reel recorders that it was at that moment a sensation."

In the 2016 film "Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape," Ottens said, "I expected it would be a success, not a revolution."

"Lou wanted music to be portable and accessible," Zack Taylor, the maker of that film, told NPR. "Cassettes taught us how to use our voice, even when the message came from someone else's songs, compiled painstakingly on a mixtape. So next time you make that perfect playlist on Spotify or send a link to share a song, you can thank Lou Ottens."

Ottens was notoriously unsentimental about his legacy and inventions. On Twitter, Taylor recalled that the engineer had proven a difficult subject for his doc. "Lou was the most difficult interview of my career thus far, but also my most cherished," the filmmaker tweeted.

Although cassettes and 8-track players were in competition for car dashboards in the early 1970s, the fact that playing a cassette only required one changeover, much like its friend the vinyl LP, made it a clear winner. Cassettes eventually overtook vinyl as a primary format as Walkman devices introduced on-demand audio that was truly on-the-go in every way for the first time. CDs began to take over in the mid-1980s, but cassettes held on long enough that, as late as 1993, the two formats had parity in the marketplace.

"The cassette is history," Ottens said in 2013. "I like when something new comes." But he could afford to say that -- he'd had a hand in developing what later became the CD, too, as far back as the 1970s.

Ottens was premature in declaring his invention dead, however. Many Gen-X-ers hold on to their machines to play the mixtapes they made for themselves and their real or prospective romantic partners in the '80s and '90s. A pocket of dogged journalists still eschews digital recorders to record interviews on cassettes (or its downsized offspring, microcassettes). Even as a commercial recorded product, it endures as a niche item, despite lacking the audio fidelity of either vinyl or CDs.

Most indie record stores carry a tiny selection of newly released cassettes, which endure more as a novelty than a medium of choice. Cassette Store Day has emerged as a scrappier complement to Record Store Day. When St. Vincent announced an upcoming release last week, included as part of it was a 500-copy limited edition on cassette. In 2020, cassette sales were up 94.7% from the year before, as the medium's cult cachet increased, even among those too young to have been around for the format's heyday. (The biggest cassette seller of 2020, at 14,000 copies, was Lady Gaga's "Chromatica.")