Rewind This: How Cassette Is Staging Music's Biggest Comeback
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
The Official Charts Company recently heralded the cassette tape as "the unlikely comeback kid of music formats" and revealed that cassette sales more than doubled in 2020. Here at Townsend Music, we've seen a litany of significant artists releasing cassettes of their latest albums, from indie-rockers The Vaccines and The Wombats, to pop powerhouses Kylie Minogue and Steps.
As these numbers only continue to increase and more artists are looking to turn out tapes of their latest LPs, it's hard not to wonder what's causing all this commotion? We reach into our schoolbag, pull out a trusty HB pencil and rewind time to discover how the humble format slots into the contemporary world of music. Ready, cassette... go!
(Cas)setting The Scene
The year is 2021. Each and every Friday, music fans awaken excitedly to explore new albums that have been pre-saved to their mobile devices the previous midnight, ready to be streamed wirelessly into their Bluetooth-enabled headphones. But what's that?! The soft plop of a package dropping through their letterbox. They open their envelope and there it is: a spanking new cassette tape of the very same record!
In the first half of 2020 - compared to the same period in 2019 - cassette sales saw an astonishing 103% increase. Even pop franchises such as Lady Gaga were rushing to place their bets on the mettle of this so-called comeback kid. Indie-rock supremos The Vaccines, whose album Back In Love City hit the top 5 in the album charts last week, had their position buoyed by an influx of strong cassette sales, most purchased in bundles with other items on their Official Store.
We asked The Vaccines what it was that was behind the comeback of the cassette in 2021 and they succinctly encapsulated the format's appeal in reply: “There’s something beautifully nostalgic about cassettes, they’re the perfect combination of music and merch; a pocket-size gem that is a great representation of the visual and audio world we have tried to create.”
Back In Love City is available on cassette on The Vaccines Official Store.
Rewinding The Cassette
The cassette tape, also known as the Compact Cassette or Musicassette (MC), was first developed by electronics manufacturer Lou Ottens while employed for the Philips Company (then known as Royal Philips) in 1962's Hasselt, Belgium. Philips released the invention in Europe at the Berlin Radion Show back in 1963, before bringing the tape to the US in November. Although reel-to-reel tapes were used in households prior to the compact cassette, listening to music at home was mainly vinyl-based and stereo 8-track cartridges were the leading format for cars. Though compact cassette science was originally designed for dictation machines, improvements in fidelity meant the cassette swiftly supplanted the older technologies for music listening and, of course, home recording!
With the arrival of supporting hardware like the 'Boom Box' back in 1966 and Sony Walkman in 1979, the ingenious little invention became the go-to format for music lovers globally who wanted to listen to their favourite tracks on the move. And, as anyone that made a mixtape for a friend or loved one in the heydey of home recording can attest, the cassette tape found its niche as a simple, convenient technology that allowed people to easily share music and recordings on a wider scale.
Fast-Forward To Generation Z
But just how much of this recent resurgence is about nostalgia for the lovable little format? Even NME-proclaimed "voice of Gen Z" Arlo Parks is an exponent of the cassette tape, offering her Mercury-Prize winning debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams across no less than three colour tape variants on her Official Store. An early advocate of Arlo and Townsend Music's D2C New Business Manager, Ben James reflects on the cassette tape's place in Park's campaign: "I think people are drawing lines in the sand. Some young people will only stream music and live a minimalistic lifestyle, whereas there is a legion of young people growing up who want to identify themselves as belonging to something and to wear the ‘badge’ of their favourite artists The Cassette has a wonderful nostalgia to it like an episode of ’Stranger Things' and for a new artist that people are really drawn to like Arlo Parks, her cassette is a bookshelf treat to hold dear and show off to friends."
Collapsed In Sunbeams is available on cassette on the Arlo Parks Official Store.
"Each generation will reap what the former generation has sown", or so goes the proverb, and while the compact cassette tape hit its peak during the 1980s, its portability and convenience had laid the groundwork for the superior-sounding Compact Disc (CD) to steal centre-stage in the 90s. Just as its analogue cousin VHS was abandoned for digital DVD, by the early noughties, cassettes - with their sonically spurious compression and propensity to degrade with time - became almost extinct as albums began to be released solely on CD and vinyl formats.
Did you know? The cassette tape is largely responsible for the live bootleg boom of the 80s.
A Pheonix From The Decks
In an article titled Fans turn to music to get through 2020 as a new wave of artists fuels streaming growth on the BPI Website, Drew Hill, Proper Music Distribution MD opined: "As we celebrate this streaming boom, it’s important we also remember the ongoing fan demand for something tangible, and recognise that streaming and physical music coexist quite happily."
One only needs to look at the effects of the global pandemic to see the resilience of physical formats alongside wholesale adoption of streaming and nowhere is that more remarkable than cassette sales. According to British Phonographic Industry figures, 156,542 cassettes were sold in the UK last year, the highest figure since 2003 with The 1975 and Dua Lipa amongst those contributing to the rise.
The dynamic between the widespread adoption of streaming and the sales of physical formats over the last decade has been fascinating to observe. But even with the continuing boom in sales of vinyl and a whole community of Compact Disc devotees refusing to give up their physical formats, the resurgence of the cassette tape is one few could have predicted. The question remains: why now?
While it can't be denied that a contributing factor in the push for artists and labels to release multiple versions of the same record is to claim a higher place on the Official UK Charts, the cassette resurgence isn't simply a case of clever marketing. At least, that's what Townsend Music Head Of Digital Barney believes: "Knowing that a lot of these tapes are likely to remain on a shelf, unplayed, it's easy to look at the people buying cassettes a bit askance, but you know what? If the fans weren't buying them we wouldn't be selling them".
"There’s something beautifully nostalgic about cassettes" - The Vaccines
Rather than the industry exploiting a fad or fans embracing nostalgia, Barney believes that the cassette boom is a deeper positive and organic sign of music aficionados choosing to be pro-active in their support of their favourite artists: "With the very public debate about artist streaming payments that is still playing out, I think people are more understanding than ever that being a fan goes beyond simply pre-saving an album on a Spotify or Apple Music."
Whether you look at cassettes as merchandise or a listening format, they are unquestionably hitting a sweet spot between being an affordable, sentimental keepsake for a fan and a legitimate asset for labels and artists, so let's all raise a toast to the return of our little plastic pal!
Explore our full range of cassettes on Townsend Music. Are you on board with the cassette comeback or do you think tapes remain in the 80s with Shoulder Pads and Cabbage Patch Kids? Let us know over on our Twitter Account and don't forget to share snaps of your cassette collection by tagging in @TownsendMusicUK on Insta!