The Unlikely Return Of Cassettes

Image by Brian Kostiuk

In the age of streaming the cassette is returning and surprising everyone with its success.

The internet has made music consumption easier than ever before and given rise to the age of streaming and digital content. The days of queuing outside your record store for the latest release are pretty much gone. At the click of a finger and at a very accessible price streaming services
– such as Spotify and Apple – provide a massive back catalogue of music to listeners. Even the way we digest music videos is totally different, gone are the days where you’d flick between Scuzz, Kerrang and MTV watching the latest music videos of your favourite artist, now YouTube dominates in this area. 

Even with this rise of technology and the initial demise of record sales there has been a bounce back of physical music sales. Vinyl sales have bounced back and as we head into 2020 they’re at an all time high since 1990. CD sales are also still in high demand but there has been a slight drop, but generally CD sales are steady. The one format that no one expected to not only return but flourish is cassette, but they have. There are several reasons to as why they’ve returned and they all play into each other. The standout reasons being that they are seen as quirky and niche, pop culture and the rise of retroisms and the increase if DIY labels and artists. 

Like vinyl they have a certain charm that streaming is not able to capture. In your hand you have the physical recording of the artists music. You get to listen to it as the artist intended without a skip button. It allows for the listener to sit back and truly lose yourself in the music, an art form that dwindling. When you hold it in your hand you feel as if you’re feeling a bit of the artists soul, which in some ways you are. Much like vinyl they are often accompanied by artwork, this too brings you closer to the music and adds a value to it that digital versions cannot. 

At the end of 2019 roughly 75,000 tapes were sold but that still only counts for 0.2% of all album sales in 2019. Interestingly the biggest sale in 2019 was a pop release, Billie Eilish’s debut album ‘When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ with 4,000 sales. This was followed closely by Catfish & The Bottlemen’s ‘The Balance’, Madonna’s ‘Madame X’ and Lewis Capaldi’s ‘Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent’. All very mainstream artists. However, in comparison to overall sales this is very low, which suggests that cassettes are (for mainstream artists at least) simply another form of merch. For example Billie Eilish released an extremely limited edition on fluorescent green cassette, her trademark colour. It’s a similar marketing tactic used by artists who release limited edition vinyls in an array of colours. 

Another example of cassettes being used in a unique way was by Nas, who hid golden cassettes around Manhattan, with clues on his and Def Jam’s instagram, a real fusion of new and old. The fans who found the cassettes first won invites to the launch party of his The Lost Tapes 2′ compilation, available on a limited edition white cassette. 

But cassettes aren’t just a fad used by mainstream artists for marketing tricks or novelty. A lot of underground artists, who are normally followed by dedicated music fans, use cassette as a genuine medium for their music. This is especially prevalent in the underground punk, noise and rock scenes. In the UK there are several DIY cassette labels that have a vast array of artists on their label and an even more impressive back catalogue of music. The ones that stand out though are Opal Tapes, Sacred Tapes and Tombed Vision Records. Each one respectfully masters in their field and working within a rising subculture called tapeheads. There now exists a vibrant online community around cassettes, there is the tapehead forum and the cassette culture subreddit. Not to mention a variety of online publications and zines dedicated to new tape releases and news, such as Cassette Gods, Die or DIY and Tabs Out (also a popular podcast). Within this community there is also a comment on the audio quality, unlike vinyl’s attraction in being superior, cassettes attraction is it’s rough and ready sound. The hiss and hum of the recording is a selling point, in some cases the more the merrier (particularly in the noise scene). 

The reason for this boost in cassette labels and cassette fans can also be equated to price, cassettes are cheap to manufacture and sell. Which makes it very attractive for labels and for fans who want to own physicals of certain releases but may not be able to invest in every record release. The standard price for a new vinyl is roughly in the £20 range, cassettes are half that and cost around £10. A start difference and a no brainer if you’re a music fan with a budget. Artists such as Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall have been releasing music on cassette since their beginning. They have kept on doing so even with solid album sales success. 

The rise of cassettes has opened up two camps, one with fans of semi-know and mainstream artists and the other for the underground scenes (which arguably never diminished). The appeal for cassettes in a wider audience though is certianly going to increase, especially as we’re in a time of retro-fetishism and nostalgia. Through mainstream media and pop culture there is an increasing rise to the retrospective. Examples of this are Guardians Of The Galaxy, the main character ‘Star Lord’ has a vintage Sony Walkman that plays 70’ & 80’s classics. It’s a main focus point of the character. Netflix’s The Crown latest season is set in the 80’s and fashion and again cassette players are on show often. These are just two examples, in general as a society we are looking backwards for inspiration. This is giving birth to a return of older formats and ways of consuming music. No matter what, like most formats cassettes will always remain, whether that is in an underground capacity or not. The medium has shown its ability to survive modern times and even adapt with it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised is cassettes steadily incline in popularity over the years. Either way it is another physical platform for music and its success cannot be a bad thing. 

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