Back to the ‘80s: Is the cassette making a comeback?

Like many analogue formats, cassettes are reportedly making a comeback. But has the tape trend been overhyped?

Remember that ancient device called the Walkman? This little miracle machine was how many ‘80s kids first discovered the joys of music. You’d click in a cassette, pop on your headphones, and set off on your way to school. Superseded by the arrival of the CD player and later the MP3, the Walkman, and with it the cassette tape, disappeared from our lives before many of us hit puberty.

Like most analogue formats, the cassette was always destined for a comeback. Over the past two years, as many major news outlets have reported on the triumphant return of the tape, some in the industry have dismissed it as yet another hipster trend gone too far. But even if the so-called cassette comeback has been overhyped, there are signs that tape sales have been trending upwards. Earlier this year, the National Audio Company, the largest tape manufacturer in the US, reported a significant boost in its output since 2014. The company sold US$5 million worth of cassettes last year, an increase of 31 percent on the previous year. It’s come at a time when there is growing demand for retro media formats of all kinds, not just in music but in fields like photography and publishing.

Barcelona-based producer and label owner Nehuen Mac Allister is one musician who has tapped into the tape trend, releasing on cassette for the first time in November 2014 with his Hidden Traxx EP. He was looking for a physical product to release with the EP on his label Classicworks, which he runs with fellow producer Cardopusher.

“The response has been cool to our standards. They do sell, better that our 12″s,” Nehuen says. “We are doing a very small run of 50 copies for each release because we find that some people enjoy having a physical object along with the digital download. The benefits (of tape) to me are kind of solidifying the idea of the release, having fun choosing the tape colors and design, and keeping the freaks happy!”

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So what’s the big deal about the cassette anyhow?

Nostalgia factor aside, listeners, collectors and artists alike are attracted to the tape largely because it is cheaper and lends itself to a wide range of releases. Label owners benefit from the lower costs and less time needed to put out a tape release as opposed to vinyl. As a result, cassette-focused labels are easy to find the world over – for example, Burger Records in California, 1080p in Vancouver, and Tesla Tapes in the UK.

Tesla Tapes founder, Paddy Shine, started the label in 2012 to release side projects from his band Gnod, a British krautrock band from Salford in the UK, and he soon started to reach out to friends and other artists for music. So far, TT has put out nearly 30 releases, mostly on cassette but also on vinyl and even some CDs (another format that Shine says he is starting to appreciate more and more). The main benefits? The lower cost, plus there are plenty of opportunities to put things on tape that you wouldn’t put on vinyl. There’s also an element of freedom that comes with the tape: C90 tapes allow for more ambitious and long-form releases, without the limitations of editing for vinyl lengths.

“It’s cheap, it’s cool and it’s a nice way to listen to sounds and music,” Shine says. “Anyone can do it and everyone is welcome, it’s all good. You can be dead creative with them – musically and visually too – so it’s a good way to spend time. I’m not sure how many people release tapes to make money for their living but it’s a labour of love.”

But wait – there’s an international day for that?

These days, cassettes even have their own international day of celebration. Founded in 2012, Cassette Store Day will be held in the UK, US, Germany, France and Japan on October 8 this year. Essentially it’s the cassette tape’s answer to Record Store Day, an annual celebration of the indie record shop. The difference with Cassette Store Day, as co-founder Jen Long has stressed, is that the day is less about celebrating the stores and more about paying homage to the cassette format itself. The Pixies, the Ramones and Death Cab for Cutie are among the big names releasing tapes for this year’s event.

In some parts of the music industry, however, cassette culture never died. Certain genres – like punk, experimental and ambient music – have always embraced the format. And there are definite signs that the return of the cassette may have been overstated. Earlier this year, there were reports that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was considering tracking cassette sales again, due to a boost in sales. RIAA later denied the reports, saying that cassette sales remained too low for the industry body to report them.

So should you believe the hype? Of course it may be the case that the broader public and the media are just now rediscovering a scene that, until recently, was considered niche and maybe a bit nerdy. Perhaps the mainstream revival of the tape is fuelled by nostalgia for a childhood relic, or maybe it’s just another example of rebellion against digital culture. Either way, artists like Paddy Shine and Nehuen Mac Allister say the tape has just as much staying power as vinyl.

“I think the people who have been doing it for a long time will keep doing it, some newcomers will stay and others will experiment and maybe move to other formats,” says Nehuen. “What’s cool is that more people in the industry are becoming aware that this is happening and maybe give it a bit more of credibility.”