In late noughties Soho, after gigs at the The Spice of Life pub, you’d find a man named Jackie with CDs and cassettes lined up outside. “He’d ask what instrument you play, you’d tell him and he’d record you bootleg tapes. It was his way of giving us the music but none of us had cassette players,” says trombonist Rosie Turton. Cassettes have been relics for almost 20 years but in 2019, two years after the first real signs of a comeback, their low stakes, DIY charm just won’t quit.
The official revival is a flash that, according to the latest data, will be measured in years not months. Sales are still on the up, if not exactly skyrocketing. So far in 2019, 35,000 cassettes have been sold in the UK, according to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). That’s almost double the 18,000 sold by the same point in July 2018 and Rob Copsey, editor at The Official Charts Company, predicts around 75,000 will be sold by the end of 2019.
In other words, it’s more than the 50,000 sold last year but short of the somewhat symbolic, though still ultimately miniscule, benchmark of 100,000 cassette sales last seen c. 2004. The BPI says cassettes have accounted for just 0.2 per cent of album sales in the year to date, versus a much more respectable 12 per cent for vinyl, which has had a much bigger, more easily explained and very well documented resurgence in the last decade.
According to The Official Charts Company, the biggest cassette release in the UK for January to July 2019 is a pop release, Billie Eilish’s debut album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? with 4,000 sales of the ‘Exclusive Black Cassette.’ Second is Catfish and The Bottlemen’s The Balance, on 3,000 cassette sales, with Madonna’s Madame X at no.3, Lewis Capaldi’s Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent at four and Hozier’s Wasteland Baby rounding out the top five. Last year’s bestseller was The 1975’s A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships which sold 7,523 copies, most in the first week of release.
It’s possible that cassettes for new releases are now simply merch that just so happens to store and play music and, for obvious reasons, there’s no data for how many of these new releases are actually ever slotted into a tapedeck. The aesthetic appeal, of say a colourful cassette versus a CD, is also being exploited in both marketing of new albums and to find new converts online. This week the rapper Nas played Willy Wonka, hiding golden cassettes around Manhattan, with clues on Def Jam and Mass Appeal’s Instagram accounts. The fans who found the cassettes first won invites to the launch party of his The Lost Tapes 2 compilation, available on a limited edition white cassette. Taro Tsunoda, founder of cult cassette shop Waltz in Nakameguro, Tokyo, says the Waltz Instagram account (15,000 followers) acts both as a “daily introduction of new products released on cassette tape” and “to create a gallery of modern cassette culture online”.
“We’ve been detached from music as a physical thing for long enough now that vinyl and cassettes don’t just feel nostalgic, they feel almost otherworldly,” says John Kannenberg, director and chief curator of the Museum of Portable Sound. “From the moment digital music began to surpass physical music, it was only a matter of time before the pendulum would swing back for a segment of the market.”
For people either new to or returning to cassettes, there is the small matter of how to play them. Tsunoda has sold over 1,500 vintage cassette players since the store opened in 2015 and says that teenagers and people in their twenties lean towards Walkmans whereas “older people buy Boomboxes”. Sony marked the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Walkman on July 1 not with a limited edition player but an exhibition and a Sony spokeswoman confirmed that there are no current plans to release an anniversary model Walkman.
“I definitely think Sony passed up an opportunity to bring a new cassette-based device to market,” says Kannenberg. “They could have capitalised on the 40th anniversary – as well as the current, mostly underground, resurgence of cassettes – to create a one-off ‘next generation’ Walkman that, if kept affordable and with a useful feature set such as the ability to record cassettes into digital formats and vice versa – along with the Sony brand name – could have potentially given a temporary, major boost to cassette sales.” Tsunoda agrees: “Definitely, Sony is the key player to solve the problem.”
Seemingly aiming to step into the new-Walkman-shaped void is the It’s OK Bluetooth cassette player, crowdfunding now on Kickstarter. It’s a cheap and cheerful portable player with both a Bluetooth 5.0 antenna, to connect wireless headphones, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Available in three colours – white, pink and navy – with a transparent case, it costs $75 (£59) to pledge for one device, with shipping set for December 2019. The campaign runs until early August and has already passed its modest target but, considering the number of headlines it garnered and perhaps signifying the size of the trend amongst those new to the cause at least, it has raised just £57,000 from 846 backers. There’s also the question of sound. Cassettes have never been lauded for their sound quality though aficionados claim that a good quality, well maintained tapedeck can make all the difference.
The It’s OK player is mono, not stereo, for a start which is an obvious dealbreaker for many and Tsunoda says he told the startup that “Japanese people won’t buy it because of the sound quality.” Sanami Kwok, marketing manager at NINM Lab, the Hongkong based startup behind the device, says that Kickstarter backers have already suggested other features such as “converting digital music to cassette, a built in cellphone type battery and a 3.5mm jack for input for recording with their own microphones.” Later this month, the team plan to launch a separate crowdfunding campaign for the product in Taiwan with a third campaign planned for Japan.
In terms of hardware, it would also be remiss not to mention the £30 Aldi Reka Boombox, launched in June, though not currently on sale online and undoubtedly another case where vintage kit trumps 2019 gimmicks.
Looking ahead, the conversation around cassettes will be split between semi-mainstream releases by recognisable artists and the real underground discovery culture that, to an extent, never went away. On the one hand, Bjork reissued her back catalogue of nine studio albums on mutli-coloured limited edition cassettes in April; US music chain FYE is stocking 1,200 copies of the Stranger Things Season 3 soundtrack on cassette and the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack has been a big, bestselling hit at Waltz.
The Official Charts Company’s Rob Copsey predicts that Sam Fender’s Hypersonic Missiles, The 1975’s Notes on a Conditional Form and Royal Blood’s next album will sell ‘big’ on cassette in the UK in the second half of 2019 and the seventh annual, international Cassette Store Day, the much, much smaller sibling of Record Store Day, is set for 12 October.
On the other, the cassette community of #tapeheads on Instagram, Discogs, Bandcamp and elsewhere, continue to cluster around specific genres which lend themselves to the format. Lo-fi black metal, punk and hip hop (especially instrumental beat tape), in particular, are regarded as especially suited to the cassette sound. Also namechecked are underground genres like noise, drone and experimental electronic styles like vaporware and dungeonsynth. Collectors of genres like hip hop also treat the cassette as the portal into discovering music from the 80s and 90s which may have only ever been released on this format, in runs of thousands, hundreds or less, comparable to the practice of hunting down rare 45s.
Music database and marketplace Discogs found that cassettes made up 6 per cent of releases logged by the community in 2018 with digital on 9 per cent, CDs on 33 per cent and vinyl making up 49 per cent. In 2019, the most popular cassette genres on the platform are rock (27,771), pop (14,310), electronic (12,434) and folk, world and country (10,878) with classical, stage and screen, reggae and even brass and military all making an appearance. In amongst classic bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Pink Floyd, the Discogs stats also show that Billie Eilish’s Don’t Smile At Me; Godspeed You Black Emperor’s 1994 All Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Drooling and Tyler The Creator’s Scum Fuck Flower Boy making ‘most wanted’ lists on the site.
The most collected, most wanted and highest selling cassette of the year so far on Discogs is The Artist (Formerly Known as Prince) The VERSACE Experience – Prelude 2 Gold, a re-released mixtape with remixes and some previously unreleased material from a 1995 Paris Fashion Week show in which the tapes were handed out to promote The Gold Experience. (Rare cassettes can’t compete with records but an original cassette from the show sold for over £3,000 on Discogs in 2016.)
Waltz’s Taro Tsunoda thinks that the cassette comeback is slightly delayed in the UK compared to the US and Europe but notes that the volume of offers to stock cassettes “from labels and artists all over the world” has increased further this year. John Kannenberg, meanwhile, believes cassettes will “fall out of fashion again quickly” and remain a novelty, pointing to the low sales of collector cassettes by big-name artists. Cassettes are still widely thought to be inferior to digital audio on almost all counts including sound quality, capacity, controls and durability. But for those who are already invested in the culture, if 2019 is the peak of the current cassette resurgence, that’s not an issue.
“You can still get all sorts of almost anything for bottom dollar,” says Brent Greissle, discography specialist at Discogs. “It’s still a good time to get all the classics you’d pretty much dream of finding for really cheap, like I am. As long as there’s good music out there for me to find, I could care less about the trend.”
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