Be kind, rewind: Cassettes are making a comeback
In 1963, Dutch engineer Lodewijk Frederik Ottens (known to history as Lou Ottens) changed the way the world listened to music. His invention, the cassette, was revolutionary for its time. He described it as “smaller than a pack of cigarettes.”
It didn’t immediately catch on. As with every new innovation for experiencing the arts, there were sceptics who felt it compromised on quality in exchange for portability and ease of use. But it was portable and convenient in a way that its predecessor, the LP or long playing record, simply wasn’t. Blank tapes also made the miracle of personalised playlists possible. And made it possible to record your own voice at the click of a button. And so the cassette eventually displaced the LP.
By its mid-’80s peak, 900 million cassettes were being sold a year, and more than half the world’s music was being consumed in this format. (The rest was still on LPs.) Eventually, in the 1990s, the cassette would lose out to the even hardier and more convenient CDs, and then of course the iPod, streaming platform and smartphone.
But Ottens, who died this March, lived long enough to see a sudden and surprising spurt in demand for his invention. The cassette has been making a quiet comeback, mainly in the UK and US. Over 156,000 cassettes were sold in the UK in 2020, according to data from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), that country’s recorded music industry trade association. It’s a number that had been growing for about seven years, coinciding perfectly with (you’ll never guess) the release of the Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
Apart from the nostalgia factor, the credit for the spurt in cassettes sales goes to films and TV series such as Guardians… (2014), Stranger Things (2016) and 13 Reasons Why (2017), says Gennaro Castaldo, director of communications at BPI. “Though it’s still a very small fraction of overall music consumption, the sales have been improving steadily,” he adds.
Global music icons such as Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa are now releasing new music on cassettes alongside CDs and streaming platforms. Sales in the US grew 23% in 2018, according to research agency Nielsen, with 219,000 tapes sold, up from 178,000 in 2017.
Superfans appreciate the convenience of streaming but also like the idea of owning, collecting or having some kind of tactile relationship with the things they love, says Castaldo. “Guardians of the Galaxy had the central storyline of a young man whose mother passed him a cassette before dying. Rather bizarrely, as is the way of sci-fi films, when he was captured by aliens and transported to a whole different world, he only had his cassette and grew up listening to those songs. The film, when it came out, just to have fun, released its soundtrack not only on streaming and CDs, but also on cassettes.”
In 2019, for the fourth year in a row, the best-selling cassette tape in the US was the soundtrack of that film. Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol 1 sold 24,000 units, while its sequel Vol 2 moved 19,000 copies. “We have now reached a point where many of the albums released in the UK now also include cassettes as one of the standard formats. They know the demand is niche, so they just bring out maximum of 5,000 copies, but it’s enough to ensure the interested fans will buy,” Castaldo says.
It’s possible that those buying the cassettes aren’t even listening to them, just acquiring them as collectibles. “Some of them do play the tapes as you can still buy re-conditioned, second-hand cassette players. But the majority are just buying them as they like the idea of owning them. There’s a degree of novelty there,” he says.
Delhi-based businessman and cassette collector Nishant Mittal says he wishes more music was available on cassette in India. In addition to nostalgia, he adds, cassettes are cheaper than any other existing physical format for music. “The cassette culture fizzled out in India around 2006-07. Ever since, cassette enthusiasts have been listening to old stock and there hasn’t been any new cassette production in India on an even relatively similar scale,” he says. “There are two types of cassette collectors in India. Those who grew up on cassettes and never grew out of them, and the younger generation who enjoy the physical appeal of the cassette format. I follow international musicians like Tyler, the Creator, Mac DeMarco and James Blake who still release music on cassettes for their fan bases. Indian sound artists Hemant Sreekumar and Dreamhour also put out cassettes of their work. I love to collect cassettes of Indian contemporary underground artists like these.”
There is little room for cassettes in the mainstream though. Vinod Bhanushali, president of marketing and media publishing at T-Series, says the music giant released its last cassette in 2013, a special-edition tribute to the 1990 film Aashiqui, produced to coincide with the release of the film’s sequel, Aashiqui 2. “The cassettes didn’t sell much because by then people had moved on from the format and almost no one had a player to play it on,” Bhanushali says. “Since then we have stopped making cassette tapes. There is no profit because there are no physical music stores any more, and people don’t want to spend money on something that has 10 songs on it, when millions of songs are available for free online.”