Boombox street parties. Cheesy mixtapes for a crush. Desperately unwinding your favourite album with an HB pencil after it had been chewed up by your car. Memories of the humble cassette tape vary from affection to animosity, but it is safe to say it was an icon of twentieth century music.
Unfortunately, however, its iconicity could not save it from a slow death around 2004 due to a terminal decline in sales. From 2005 onwards, virtually no singles, albums or compilations were sold on tape… until now.
In 2016, compact cassette sales increased by 74%, the fastest rate of any music medium and have grown consistently since. During the pandemic, both the UK and US saw sales of cassette tapes double in a year, reaching pre-2004 levels of sales, and 2022 set a new peak in both countries at 195,000 and 440,000 units respectively.
Though this rise is impressive, it must be noted that cassette tapes still make up barely more than 0% of all music consumption. Streaming accounts for 84% and vinyl is the most popular physical medium with 21.8 million sales in the US in 2022, almost 50 times more than cassettes.
Clearly cassette sale statistics are not enough to strike fear into the hearts of Spotify shareholders, but the rapid growth cannot be denied. It is clear, like the vinyl before it, there is somewhat of a cassette tape renaissance underway.
The revival has been met with confusion from many in the industry. Of physical formats, any muso will tell you that vinyl gives you the best sound quality. CDs come second and are also probably the least fraught with potential problems. Tapes also lack the romance and aesthetic of vinyl, and the compact cassette’s early draws, such as the abilities to record over and create your own mix, have been surpassed by both CDs and streaming alike. Thus the cassette’s revival is somewhat of a mystery and begs the fundamental question… why?
To start with, pop culture appears to have influenced sales. The film Guardians of the Galaxy was released in 2014 and featured the protagonists love of his tape “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” as a central theme. Two years later, the cassette type revival begins. This may look like the most circumstantial possible evidence riding the line of complete coincidence, until you see that Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks were the first, third and sixth most popular albums by cassette tape sales in 2022. Global popstars such as Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Dua Lipa have also released their recent albums on cassette tape, all of which achieved tens of thousands of sales on the format.
In a bleaker turn, the increase in cassette tapes could be more of a necessity than a sentimental reverence. When there is as little money in streaming as there is, artists look to selling physical formats to make a living, and tapes are far cheaper to produce than vinyl. This again would explain the sharp increase in sales during Covid as artists could no longer rely on touring and gig money.
But when CDs and digital downloads are both cheaper and more convenient still, this does not explain the surge in tape sales.
Therefore, like the similar draw to vinyl, nostalgia must be a prominent reason. Compact cassette buyers are predominantly young with one third even being Gen Z, an age too young to remember the vinyl hegemony but old enough to remember cassette tapes, giving them the same allure vinyl does for older generations. They also spent 227% more on music, even while being 53% more likely to use a paid streaming service. This suggests cassette buyers are serious music devotees and view physical music formats as collector’s items, justifying a high spend.
Furthermore, the fact the greatest increases in sales were during the pandemic may suggest people were reaching out to physical copies of music by their favourite artists as ways to deal with the digital detachment and alienation that was so widely reported in these years.
The tapes in Guardians of the Galaxy and more recently Stranger Things are shown to their audiences through a lens of nostalgia and hence the appeal is so much greater. Likewise with the release of hugely popular albums on cassette, though this could instead just be an attempt to jump on the commercial bandwagon. For local bands, selling tapes also connects with their audiences in a way new streaming technology cannot, through a physical presence.
It seems the compact cassette tape is not based in functionality or frugality. Nor is it purely the influence of Hollywood and celebrities on our impressionable minds. Like with vinyl, the renewed popularity in tapes appears to be more aligned to what they represent. Be that a happier time in life, a closer connection to your favourite artist, a cherished collectable, or simply the value of owning your music.
It’s hard to tell if the cassette tape renaissance is here to stay, but it seems in the meantime, for many, it is welcomed.