Rue the day you gave away that boombox – the cassette revival is here to say, says Amy Dawson.
When Disney released its Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtracks on tape in 2014 – making a real-life feature of the film’s cassette-based plot point – the format was given a huge boost. Latest statistics suggest this was more than just a flash in the pan: according to the Official Charts Company, cassette sales have more than doubled in 2017.
Artists such as Kasabian, Arcade Fire, Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey (below) have released Walkmanready records in recent times. Nevertheless, their retro appeal is still a factor in 2017. ‘I remember sneaking my Walkman under my pillow so I could listen to The Beatles,’ says Rou Reynolds of Enter Shikari, whose album The Spark is so far the third-highest selling cassette of this year. ‘There’s a lot of nostalgia there for me.’
Many of us remember the joys and frustrations of cassettes – crouching over the radio to tape the Top 40, writing painstaking mixtape labels on stickers or dealing with the brown tangle when a machine chewed up your favourite album. For those hankering after something tangible, tapes provide a cheaper and lighter alternative to the vinyl revolution.
‘Musicians like tapes as they are cheap to produce, make for super-cute merch and are much faster to turn around than vinyl,’ says Philip Marshall from the cassetteonly label The Tapeworm. ‘Fans like them too – they are affordable objects of desire. Why buy a £25 vinyl record when you can pocket the tape for a fiver? Major labels and cult artists have cottoned on to this upswing in the past two years or so. Artists that still sell physical product are increasingly including the format.’
Even the Generation Z-ers, for whom the sound of a tape deck whirring will be as unfamiliar as the scrunching noise of a dial-up modem, are increasingly turning to cassettes. ‘I think the new generation, having been brought up on purely MP3s and streaming, enjoy holding something physical,’ says Reynolds. ‘It gives the music more of a lifespan, rather than getting lost in the vast swathes of online playlists.’
For emerging or less mainstream artists, tapes are also a pragmatic way to disseminate music. ‘We wanted to find a quick and dirty way to publish music we loved without the stresses, delays or expenses we were accustomed to,’ says Marshall of Tapeworm’s decision to release music exclusively on tape. ‘We chose the cassette as it was the format we worked with and loved in the 1980s. But they never went away. Tapes remain the main medium for distributing music in many African and Asian countries, and are still a convenient, portable vehicle for sound and data.’
While tapes are in rude health – October saw the fifth Cassette Store Day, and there are flourishing cassette-only labels – the sales numbers are small fry compared with the rest of the album market. But then again, exclusivity is a big element of the draw. It just leaves us to wonder – when is it the turn of the MiniDisc?