Cassette players are a thing of the past…NOT! Well yes, but also… not really. This rectangular music storage device was famous in the 80s and 90s but they slowly became extinct the moment CDs became a thing. But now, in 2020, when music streaming is king, lo and behold, thousands of music aficionados are listening to music on tapes again! Proof? According to the Recording Industry Association of America, cassette sales are up by 103% in 2020, with UK fans alone buying some 65,000 units. That’s not so high alright but it’s increasing fast!
So what gives? Why are people buying cassette tapes and old audio cassette players again today? Why are cassette tape manufacturers back in business again?
Let’s rewind a little bit. Maybe we should start by blaming some famous artists like Lady Gaga, Tame Impala, Dua Lipa, Ozzy Osbourne, and the Strokes for releasing limited edition cassette tapes in the recent years. Fans bought them like crazy. Countless musicians followed their steps and incorporated cassette tapes into their releases. It’s now a precious collectible item, together with vinyl, that’s become a part of many musicians’ merch table. The cassette tape is alive and well partly because of the artists who made cassettes cool again.
But we should also point a finger to the fans. Maybe it’s the coolness factor of cassette tapes being a thing of the past that makes it attractive. Just owning one feels like you belong to another era…the time when everything was still simple– when we just stare at the ceiling and think about our crushes as we listen to our favorite music on tape and get a little dramatic before dinner. Things were few, slow, and not so easy to get, making every bit of music more precious. Listening to music back then was some sort of ritual…it was definitely more tedious but that’s its charm. We had to walk towards the cassette player to press play or pause or turn it to side B, we had to rewind and fast forward, and of course, the tape could get eaten by the cassette player so we had to pull it out and fix it with our trusty ballpen. Digital music and streaming is so easy and accessible that it makes us nostalgic for the time when every track was precious because it wasn’t easy to get. You had to save money to buy the tapes of your favorite bands and it felt like you owned something that’s precious…that’s more personal and romantic. Today, you just go to Youtube or Spotify and click, click, click. Every music track from the cassettes we have is close to us, is part of us. This nostalgia for the precious ritual of consuming music before the internet can possibly be the main reason cassette tapes are back.
But when we examine closer, it’s not just the Gen X and Ys who are buying tapes so it’s not all nostalgia and sentimentality. The kids of today love them, too! Some blame Instagram and social media for this. Playing music in a way that’s different from how everyone else does today makes you more unique and interesting. And you can brag a bit about it on your Instagram feed. It makes them feel like they belong to a group that is not “basic”, probably a group that knows music and is more cultured. Also, you can take photos of cassettes and vinyl for some well-deserved humbrag. Spotify screenshots? Too meh!
Last but not the least, making cassette tapes is easy and cheap today. If you’re an indie musician, you can make at least 50 tapes and test if your fans like it. It doesn’t rot so it’s okay if it is not sold fast. Besides, it’s cool to see your tapes on your merch table and your website. While it’s not sold, it is a cool marketing item. Because of this, musicians are open to sell a few cassette tapes. People need something tangible, something they can touch, smell, and keep for a long time. Vinyl is cool but can be expensive, CDs are okay but not really too valuable. Dropcards? They’re disposable. Cassette tapes are the coolest option of the bunch if you’re practical but also sentimental.
My guess is that cassette tape sales will continue to rise in the coming years as more and more people start to miss things that are not digital. Yes, generally we want things to be easy, including our music listening experience, but there are those days when we just want something real and raw and imperfect and a little tedious like listening to our cassette tapes.