Forever pressing play with Lou Ottens’ invention, the cassette tape
On March 6 2021, Lou Ottens, a pioneer in the audio tech world, passed away. We speak with collectors about why this medium will always remain special
For radio loyalists, vintage music collectors, and historians, the passing of Lou Ottens was a sobering moment.
Hyderabad-based Bass artiste, DJ and RJ Bala Subramanyam, better known as Dakta Dub, says he was taken aback by how truly upset he was when he heard the news of Ottens’ death on March 6.
Many are especially intrigued by the history of Ottens love for audio. The Dutch inventor indulged a curiosity in experimenting with radios when he was a teenager, even going so far as to build one himself from scratch so that he and his parents could tune into the Radio Oranje in the Netherlands in the late 1930s. He modified the radio with a directional antenna to avoid Nazi German radio jammers.
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In the 1950s, Ottens’ love for tech would take him to university where he earned an engineering degree and then a career at Philips. This was where he would develop the EL3585, Philips’ first portable tape recorder. Like the light bulb and Coca Cola, Ottens’ cassette tape would be an ‘accidental invention’, that was actually born out of annoyance with the bulkier tape systems of the time.
In 1963, he would stun the world at an electronics fair with the cassette tape that was “smaller than a pack of cigarettes,” as per his catchy slogan. He quickly patented the technology with Sony and Philips once the technology was recreated in Japan, at a lower standard.
‘A new generation’
Since then, the cassette tape remains a beloved medium for music and other audio experiences, especially in India when the cinema boom was happening in tandem. Its status as a cultural artefact has encouraged a new generation of collectors in the recent years, reminding us of belt-hooked Walkmans and painstaking efforts in manual rewinding and fast forwarding.
Now, e-commerce seller sites sell ‘mint condition’ cassette tape collections for up to ₹15,000 — a far cry from the ₹30 to ₹50 price range for tapes at the time. And these items are a favourite for said collectors.
During a 2017 visit to Bala’s studio, MetroPlus was given a glimpse of the teetering towers of cassette tapes and vinyl records as well as console players. “Don’t ask me how many I have,” Bala laughed at the time, “but I can tell you they are in the thousands because I started ages ago.” He has them all: Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff and more.
Another collector is 25-year-old Delhi-based DJ and entrepreneur Nishant Mittal, who is well-known as his alias ‘Digging In India’ on Instagram where he showcases an array of vintage music collections, from posters to vinyl records to cassette tapes. Nishant, who has collected more than 800 unique cassette tapes since 2013, started out collecting records from the likes of Nirvana and Radiohead, but then eventually gravitated towards Indian pop and Indian funk genres.
“It is such a thrill to find more obscure things I didn’t know existed,” he explains. He also enjoys the process of sharing these finds through his Instagram account @digginginindia, with followers in and out of India. “One of my most treasured ones is a tape of Hindi-language covers of Michael Jackson songs. I recently found a cassette of children’s songs by Zeenat Aman. Another great find was a soundtrack to Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala,” he describes.
Probably one of the big lures of these tapes is the maximalist artworks on these cassette tape covers, reminiscent of the posters we see in older homes and vintage films. “Most were hand-done: cut, collaged and painted or drawn,” says Nishant, “and computers and editing applications were not abundant at the time so this effort makes it more meaningful. It’s easier to take care of cassettes compared to vinyl and much more easier to maintain, though both formats are fantastic in their own ways.”
Ottens’ cassette tape is powerful because musicians have poured their lives into cassette tapes to make mixtapes to send to record labels or keep as musical diaries for themselves. The power of the cassette tape is never going to go away, that much is true, no matter how advanced our recording or streaming technology may get.