As vinyl records continue their comeback, sales of albums on cassette tape are also making a steady blip on the musical radar:
- According to Statista, U.S. music cassette sales nearly tripled from 2015 to 2018, when Nielsen Music reported a 23% increase in U.S. cassette sales.
- In 2017, Bandcamp’s annual statistics showed cassette tape sales had grown nearly the same as vinyl record sales (41% and 54%, respectively).
- In July 2020, Official Charts reported a 103% increase in UK music cassette sales compared to the same period a year earlier.
Considering how cassette decks tend to be more difficult to find these days than turntables, the numbers can be called fairly remarkable.
In Canada, cassette sales numbers are a bit harder to gauge, since data-gathering companies tend to lump cassette sales figures together with CDs, digital albums, and vinyl records. Yet research speaks to a general upward trend. In 2018, for example, Nielsen Music Canada reported that sales of pre-recorded cassette tapes rose 14% (driven in part by cassette soundtrack sales from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise).
Cassette Tapes Certainly Represent a Niche Market Right Now
Compared to the mid-1980s, when cassette tape sales accounted for roughly half of total music format sales, cassettes certainly represent a niche market right now. So, it’s not surprising that when cassette sales are included in a pie chart of total sales based on physical medium, cassettes are currently a small fraction of the pie. For this reason, many journalists and music bloggers smugly and even viscerally dismiss cassettes—and people who enjoy the format.
Case in point: In an August 2018 article for Global News, broadcaster and journalist Alan Cross called cassettes “that analog relic of the Walkman era” and dubbed cassette lovers as fetishists. Acknowledging that cassette sales have been rising, Cross dismissed unit sales numbers for Canada (5,100 pre-recorded cassette tapes in 2018, according to Nielsen Canada), saying, “Five thousand cassettes sold in a nation of 35 million does not a resurrection make.” Further saying “The 21st century market seems confined to Luddite hipsters, artists who are issuing cassettes as tchotchkes/collector’s items and—wait for it—prisoners,” Cross closed his unvarnished condemnation of cassettes by calling them “hateful things, worthy of the trash bin of history.”
Cassette fans don’t deny that other music formats have higher fidelity than cassette tapes. Additionally, most fans acknowledge that vinyl records and even CDs offer cool artwork, inserts, and extras that cassettes can’t offer, and yes. If you’re not careful, it’s as easy to snap off a plastic cassette cover as it is to send a tone arm skittering across the surface of a vinyl record. Yet none of this has dissuaded thousands of cassette fans from embracing the medium (flaws and all) as an alternative way to enjoy a physical music product in a digital age.
- In 2018, 219,000 music cassettes were sold in the U.S.
- In the first six months of 2020, 65,000 cassettes were purchased in the UK and were on course to top 100,000.
- In April 2021, the British Phonographic Industry reported that cassette sales in the UK surpassed projections and clocked in at 156,542, the highest annual total since 2003.
In other words, despite Alan Cross imploring people in 2018 to “stop pretending there’s a cassette resurrection,” there was nothing pretend about it. Sure, the picture was somewhat grey in Canada due to cassette data measurements thrown into a bigger pot like turnips chucked into a stew. Yet clearer data showed a cassette resurrection was measurably happening in the U.S. and UK.
Acknowledging this, some current artists like Silk Sonic have included cassettes as a format option for new releases. For other artists who can’t bankroll a suite of music formats (or don’t have a label to do so), cassettes offer artists what they’ve always offered. They’re cheaper to produce and distribute than other formats like vinyl, and because of this, small independent cassette labels have begun to appear, like Tarantula Tapes (Barrie, Ont.), started in the summer of 2020 by Casey Cuff and Core Bee as a cassette-only label for punk bands.
Cassettes Easily Lend Themselves to DIY Album Production
Even in vinyl’s heyday, few artists had the budget, machinery, and technical training to cut and produce an indie vinyl album, and vinyl manufacturers demanded (as they do today) minimum vinyl production runs that required fairly substantial up-front money. With cassettes, all an artist really needed was a box of blank cassettes and a dubbing deck to inexpensively produce small or large production runs of a music cassette for indie distribution, and the same holds true today. Cassettes (similar to CDs) offer a simple, on-demand DIY production model for artists interested in producing a physical music format.
Additionally, cassettes are faster to produce and release. As noted by business and financial journalist Alex Ledsom in a March 2021 article for Forbes, “It can take a long time to release vinyl, months and months, whereas a cassette tape can be produced in two weeks.”
Despite the accessibility, speed, and financial merits of cassettes, the technology and fidelity of cassettes continue to draw smirking and condemning reviews from journalists like Richard Glover, who wrote in an August 2020 article for The Sydney Morning Herald, “The refreshed enthusiasm for the cassette is, in my view, a mistake,” adding his feelings that cassettes are “thorough-going rubbish.” In October 2021, Wirecutter Senior Staff Writer Brent Butterworth wrote, “Cassettes Have Sounded Lousy for Years (And Still Do!)” And three years after trashing cassettes in a Global News article, Alan Cross again expressed his views in an August 2021 survey prefaced by, “I hate the bloody things and wish we’d move on, but this survey is about you,” and not all respondents agreed with Cross’s condemnations.
While some respondents didn’t enjoy cassettes, some said cassettes (even old ones) sounded better than CDs, that they enjoyed the affordability, and that cassettes had a place alongside vinyl—views that aligned with findings by ecoustics. In December 2021, ecoustics reported that a new generation of music fans “are format agnostic and just want to enjoy their favorite music,” adding, “younger music fans actually love the format and with hundreds of thousands of used tape decks floating around pawn shops, eBay, and vintage audio stores, there is still a market for the format.” Qualifying this, Discogs reported that over 282,000 new cassette tapes were sold through their marketplace in 2020, representing a 33% increase over 2019.
How you feel about cassettes as a possible music release format ultimately belongs to you, and opinions certainly vary. Yet against this, cassette tapes continue to move across the musical landscape like Johnny Rotten snarling and sneering at any notion of how he might compare to others, how he should behave, or what others think he should be doing.