This year has seen the release of a film, that at its heart lay a character with a pivotal relationship to cassette tapes. Wim Wender’s Perfect Days not only saw its protagonist listening to tapes throughout the story, but also visiting a record store in which he is astonished to discover how much his tapes are now worth. This is a rather apt reflection of the current global resurgence of cassettes.

Over the past four years, cassette’s like their vinyl cousin before them, have begun to make a return to the shelves of record stores and merch tables. What’s more is that those trendy wine bars that require four different secret door codes to enter, are now ditching their turntables for tape decks too. Many music news outlets have been bringing conversations on this phenomena to the front of the cultural zeitgeist, but is this simply a post-pandemic fad brought on by recent exposure in film and television?
Will this be a full blown revival or a false resurrection?
Let’s delve a little deeper into the nitty gritty and try to find out for ourselves.

Objects that are rare and evoke youthful nostalgia for those generations that have a fair chunk of spare pocket money, will always become “collectible”. Unsurprisingly then, original release cassette copies of cult albums are fetching big money on the second-hand market. However, the observant gig-goers among you will have noticed that some bands are beginning to release their latest albums on cassette as well. Not only that, but global megastars such as Harry Styles and Taylor Swift, are joining the party and now releasing their music on cassette. This intersection between small independent artists and juggernauts signed to major labels, is down to the same factor: money. For up and coming artists, tapes remain a cheap way to produce physical copies of their music which allows them to make larger profits than solely putting their music up on streaming services. For the likes of Taylor and Harry with a truly rabid fanbase, the cassette represents a cheap product with a large potential markup that will undoubtedly be snapped up.

So, how do the sales figures themselves stack up?
According to the British Phonographic Industry’s (BPI) latest annual report, 2023 saw cassette sales reach a 20 year peak in the United Kingdom. This is as well as a year on year sales growth over the last decade. However, this growth and the way it’s being reported in music circles, neglects to show the whole picture. Yes there has been exponential growth, but the actual figures are still minuscule when compared to vinyl and even CD sales. That stat I mentioned earlier, the 20 year peak of cassette sales in the UK. That figure was 185,000 tapes. According to an article by the Australian Financial Review, in 2023 an average tape sells for $15 in Australia. Making that an estimated sales figure of $2,775,000. When we then compare that to CD and vinyl sales reported by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) in Australia for that same year, we see a figure of $24.9 and $29.7 million dollars respectively. So, not quite the tidal wave you’d be forgiven in thinking we had on our hands.

What vinyl records and cassettes share is a nostalgia for older listeners, a collectibility and an inherent rareness. However, we have to remember why the cassette tape killed off vinyl records in the first place. Cassettes came in as a considerably cheaper product to manufacture than vinyl. Tapes also brought about a portability for music that was revolutionary. First it was boomboxes and car stereos and then it was the Walkman. Tapes allowed the listener to take their music into the day with them in a way that vinyl records simply couldn’t compete. That, along with the ability to create custom mixtapes for no extra expense, sounded the death knell for chunky 12″ records. The so called “vinyl revival” of the last decade has been built off the back of a reversion to analog listening and vinyl records providing a warmer sound in comparison to digital files. When we compare the sound quality alone of cassettes and vinyl, cassettes are much more compressed and lack the depth of a vinyl record. Therefore, they are unlikely to dethrone vinyl records on that selling point. To add insult to injury, the mixtapes that set them apart have been replaced by more playlists than you can poke a stick at. The portability factor of cassettes is now irrelevant too, if consumers want affordable and portable music, they stream it.

As with the beginning of the vinyl revival. Finding cassette tapes isn’t hard part, it is finding something to play them on. The number of new, high-quality tape players being manufactured is far below the rise in demand. This has prompted a handful of manufacturers to come to the fore, hoping to capitalise on this predicted resurgence. Products like the Lofi One by Turntable Lab and We Are Rewind’s cassette player, are slick and aesthetically driven options that are beginning to gain consumer attention. Though, with the demand still relatively low, producing these units in small numbers means that both of these products will set you back the same amount as an entry level turntable would.

Additionally, Kodak who are themselves a mass manufacturer of cassette tapes. Admit that even when stored in optimal conditions, cassette tapes will only last 30 years before degrading beyond a listenable quality. Unlike vinyl records made of PVC, which can last a century before damage starts to set in. PVC in itself will last for thousands of years before breaking down. This then leaves cassettes in the ornamental category of collectible, that is valuable simply because you have it to look at.

This groundswell that music-media outlets have been commenting on of late, is an overrepresentation of what’s happening in the wider community. An attempt to try and jump onto a trend early.
There is an aesthetic appeal to owning a tape collection that is being amplified in no small part by films like Perfect Days. The lower price of cassettes also make them appealing when wanting to pick up a memento from a gig, if the price of a vinyl record or t-shirt is too high. I don’t doubt that we will see cassettes continue to grow as a supplementary section in local record stores, but nothing more than that. We won’t be seeing sales rising to the point where record stores will shift from selling majority vinyl records, to majority cassettes.

I hasten to say, but I suspect the boy who cried cassette is a liar.

George Davies

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