With vinyl sales at their highest in decades, we take a look at whether cassette tapes will ever have a comeback on the same scale.
It’s no secret that vinyl has been selling well. By October last year, 10 million vinyl records had already been sold. According to a Nielsen end of year industry report, US vinyl sales grew again in 2017 for the 12th consecutive year. None of this, so far, is surprising. The real newsworthy finding from Nielsen is the huge increase in sales of cassette tapes. Up 35% from 2017, 174,000 tapes were sold in the US last year—that’s the best year for cassettes since 2012.
Fans of manual rewinding should rejoice at these findings. But is this a fluke, or is it the beginning of a vinyl-style comeback?
Cassette tapes are now firmly ‘retro’
A musical format becomes popular and unpopular in stages. At first, the format is flashy and new, perhaps even futuristic. Sales are on the rise. Next, it’s the norm—the default format for anyone purchasing music. Sales plateau. After that, it becomes old hat. Something new has come along, and the format’s sales stagnate and fall, with only dedicated collectors making new purchases of limited releases. This, for a long time, was assumed to be the end of the cycle.
Vinyl records challenged this perception. Throughout the 2010s, sales increased rapidly, and in 2017 overall physical album sales fell while vinyl record sales rose. Vinyl has entered a renaissance. The format is cool again, popular not just with DJs, hipsters and hardcore collectors, but with many mainstream music buyers. Now that tape sales are on the rise, too, we have to consider if the ‘retro cool’ phase of a format’s lifespan is inevitable. The only problem with this theory is that while many listeners argue that vinyl records are superior to CDs in sound quality, no one is making that argument for cassettes.
Some formats age better than others
When they were new, tapes were hailed for their convenience and portability. Cassettes were a compacted version of 8-track tapes (which, incidentally, show no sign of making a comeback soon). They allowed listeners complete control over the music in their cars for the first time. They also popularised the concept of a personal music player—notably with Sony’s Walkman. And perhaps most significantly of all, tapes were customisable, giving everyone the chance to play DJ in creating their own mixtapes. All of these factors completely changed our relationship to music. But while cassette tapes were a revolutionary format, they certainly had their drawbacks.
Even while they were popular, cassette tapes’ physical flaws were roundly criticised. Rewinding tapes incorrectly could too easily leave them a tangled mess, and repeat listening could wear a tape down into nothingness. It’s no surprise that CDs recall records in their shape and durability—after years of cassette tapes, it was just what people needed.
We also need to keep in mind vinyl’s continued popularity with DJs. Thanks to superior sound quality and a susceptibility to scratching, records are still first choice for many on the club scene. Cassettes, on the other hand, are nowhere to be found.
Cassettes vs vinyl: vintage music
Perhaps the growth in vinyl sales has made cassette tapes’ comeback inevitable. Now vinyl records are on sale in supermarkets, their nostalgic value is waning. It seems vinyl is entering another phase in the format life cycle—the post-comeback period where the format becomes, well, kind of normal. For those who gravitated towards vinyl for its ‘authenticity’, cassette tapes offer the perfect replacement. They’re uncool, they’re ironic. They’re hard to come by, which means they’re rarer than the now-ubiquitous records.
For many young buyers, they’re actually even more nostalgic than vinyl ever was. Those who grew up in the 90s, before CDs took off, might fondly recall shoving a pencil into one of a cassette’s central holes to wind it back for another listen. They might not-so-fondly recall struggling to put a tape in the right way round. But whatever they thought of tapes at the time, listening to them again will bring back memories.
Cassettes’ lack of durability and other physical defects may mean this comeback is short-lived, but the nostalgia factor could take it further. No one could have predicted the second rise of vinyl, so we’d be foolish to write off the cassette tape comeback as a fad.