When properly cared for, an audio cassette tape can last 30 years or longer. However, many factors can shorten that lifespan considerably. The two most common causes of premature tape death are equipment malfunction (“The cassette player ate my tape!”) and heat (“The radiator melted my tape!”).
Cassette Tape Lifetime Factors
All cassette tapes were not created equal. Longer tapes (90 and 120 minutes) required the use of thinner tape, which makes those tapes more susceptible to breaking. Older tapes using chromium dioxide as a coating may not be as durable as later tapes using magnetite, cobalt-absorbed iron oxide, or ferric oxide and cobalt. The felt pressure pads on lower quality tapes may deteriorate or fall of earlier. Tapes recorded on both sides may not last as long as single-sided recordings, due to bleed-through of the magnetic fields.
Cassette tapes should be stored in a cool (50-70 degree Fahrenheit) dry (20-40% relative humidity) place. For best results, fast forward and rewind each tape before storage to ensure the tape is properly positioned within the cassette. Cassette tapes should be stored vertically, to prevent damage to the edges of the tape media.
Cassette tapes should be used yearly to help prevent layers of tape from becoming stuck to each other.
If a cassette tape is damaged, you can sometimes recover all or part of the recording by opening the cassette and moving the magnetic tape to an undamaged cassette housing. This is easier with cassette tape housings which are screwed together instead of the types which are welded together.
If the tape contents need to be preserved for a longer period than the life of the audio tape, it will need to be transferred to a digital format such as FLAC.