I Got it On Tape

In this digital age, the era of the mix tape feels like ancient history. And I find myself wondering what has happened to the manufacturers of magnetic tape.

It doesn’t take much effort for me to recall a time when teenage social standing depended not only on the music you listened to and the car you drove, but also your brand of cassette tape. People of a certain age will recognize with some fondness the commercial tag line “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” or the Maxell TV commercial with the dude in the armchair getting blown away by his sound system.IES15 live-or-memorex

As a teen, one of my favorite hangouts was the record store. I would spend hours at Tower Records, Rainbow Records, and Rasputin Records in the Bay Area browsing the aisles for my next purchase. These stores also had large bins of blank cassettes, often in multi-packs, that I’d buy for my mix tapes. TDK was my brand of choice, and I would debate my friends over the topics of dynamic range and the proper metal content for optimum sound reproduction. As with bands or cars, I pretended to know more than I really did, and I was mostly able to get away with it.

Today, Maxell, a division of Hitachi, is sufficiently diversified that it continues to be in business making DVDs, flash drives, and other forms of storage. The magnetic tape portion of the corporation is now considered “information storage media.” According to the corporation’s annual report, these products are lumped in with hard disk drives, liquid crystal displays, and, oddly, batteries. As such, it continues to be a profitable business segment, although battery sales appear to be compensating for the declining demand for tapes.

Memorex also continues to be in business, although it too has diversified and merged to become a division of Imation, which also owns the TDK brand. Like Maxell, Memorex wisely shifted focus to the broader category of “storage media” (hard drives, flash drives, CDs, and DVDs) rather than trying to remain just a tape manufacturer. The magnetic tape portion of the business, as one would expect, is in decline, according to Imation’s latest annual report. Interestingly, though, they continue to sell magnetic tape worldwide for data back-up and disaster recovery purposes. Who knew?

TDK

One of the last mix tapes I made.

Besides my boyhood preoccupation with cassettes, I have another personal connection with magnetic tape. My grandfather founded a company that started out making anodized aluminum reels for magnetic tape used by IBM to store computer data. Located in Batavia, New York, Tompkins Metal Finishing continues today under the leadership of my uncle and cousin, but they haven’t made tape reels for quite some time. They were smart enough to diversify into other forms of aluminum anodizing and electroplating to save themselves from going the way of buggy whip makers.

Change happens, I know. And tapes were not perfect. In fact, often they were downright maddening when I’d pull a tangled mess from my stereo, and it’s probably for the best that they’ve been surpassed. But I tend to have this nostalgic attachment to old technology, so I’m pleased to find that, if I ever wanted to, I could still pick up a set of tapes.

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