If you needed further proof that 2020 will go down as one of the strangest years in human history, look no further than the record charts.
The cassette tape — the antediluvian format that gave PTSD to an entire generation — is enjoying a comeback. And not just a comeback. Sales of cassettes more than doubled in the first six months to the end of June with 65,000 shifted in the UK alone.
This is quite distinct from the vinyl boom of the past decade. Vinyl is an all-ages trend, with fogeys as likely to splash out on a Guns ’n’ Roses or Radiohead LP as a Gen Zer is on the new Billie Eilish.
Cassette tapes, by contrast, are largely a hit with the kids. In Britain, the top-selling cassette of 2020 so far is Calm by 5 Seconds of Summer, followed by Lady Gaga, The 1975, Selena Gomez and Dua Lipa. So whoever else is fuelling this revival it isn’t indie dads in a tizzy at the prospect of Paul Weller “going prog”.
The phenomenon has caught everyone by surprise, including the companies which manufacture magnetic tape and have seen the market shrink to practically nothing in recent years.
“We never stopped producing them, but demand had tailed off to tapes for police interviews,” Karen Emanuel, the chief executive of the Key Production Group, which manufactures vinyl, cassettes and CDs, told the Guardian last year.
What’s behind the revival? The simple answer is that cassettes are quirky and brimming with personality. In a world where too much is digital and ephemeral, they are reassuringly analogue and tactile.
The packaging on new cassettes also tends to be Instagram-friendly. Billie Eilish’s 2019 debut LP, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?, for instance was available in lurid green and orange cassettes. They were crying out to be shared all over your social media.
Young people also posses the enormous advantage of not being battled-scarred by cassettes first time around. Some of us still vividly remember the sense of onrushing horror when a tape became jammed and had to be picked out from the tape-head by hand and torturously wound back in. Scratched CDs were a minor irritation by comparison.
With so much music sloshing around online, artists and record-buyers alike have rediscovered the “hands-on” thrill of a physical format.
But vinyl is notoriously expensive to produce. That’s fine if you’re a major label planning a Fleetwood Mac or Nirvana anniversary reissue. For smaller labels a vinyl run is often prohibitively costly. But tapes are cheap and it is within the means of even a shoe-string operation to put out 100 or 1,000 copies of an album.
The low price matters for kids too. A picture disc vinyl of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia costs around euro €27.99. The equally tactile “gold cassette” edition, by contrast, retails at less than a tenner. Or at least it did before it sold out.
It’s not just major artists either. In Ireland small labels such as Dublin’s Wow and Flutter and Fort Evil Fruit in Cork specialise in cassette releases. Wow and Flutter limits its runs to just 100 cassettes.
“It’s satisfying to have a nicely packaged physical manifestation of the release, and this seems to give it an impact that digital-only releases lack, but the choice of format isn’t particularly significant in itself – it’s more important that people have access to the music,” says Paul Condon of Fort Evil Fruit. “For me there’s no element of elitism, purism or nostalgia in the format. It’s more an affordable and pragmatic way of releasing music that by its nature has a limited or niche appeal.
“While cassette releases have been popular in DIY/underground and indie circles for a while, major labels have begun to jump on the bandwagon and release cassettes by big mainstream acts. I think this is more of a gimmick, but is essentially harmless; they’re sold in relatively tiny quantities, are not replacing any other format, and if you don’t like the format you don’t have to bother with it. Also I think tapes have an unfair reputation as being poor quality both in terms of sound and durability — if you keep them stored properly and keep your tape heads clean they can sound great and won’t get chewed up.”
The very disposability of cassettes back in the day was, of course, part of their charm. They were cheap, cheerful and indestructible. You could wedge them into your glove box by the dozen or spill drinks over them. And they would still play (unless they decided to spontaneously unravel).
Some have theorised, as pointed out above, that the cassette revival is really all about aesthetics.
That tapes are bought so that they can be Instagrammed rather than played. But it also surely speaks to a curiosity among the young for a past that even their parents may at best dimly recall. As Karen Emanuel, of Key Production Group, told the I newspaper, “Cassettes have been the younger demographic, who have nostalgia for something they’ve never had”.Sign up to our free entertainment newsletter
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