The Cassette is Back – Or is It? – An Investigation, Part Two
It’s taking all I can muster not to be smug about the absurdity of the return of the cassette, and how it is championed primarily by those driven by nostalgia. As mentioned in Copper 189, Emma Powell, the Deputy Showbiz News Editor of the UK’s Daily Mail, with readership of two million in a country of 60 million, declared a comeback for that second-most miserable of formats. She cited numbers such as sales of 195,000 cassettes (in the UK) in 2022, up 5.2 percent – an increase for the 10th year in a row.
What surprises me most me is that there are still any surviving tape duplicators to serve this new demand, given that the format was even worse off than the LP post-2000. Another interesting number – again, I am reporting from the UK – is that cassettes accounted for more than 10 percent of the chart sales of No. 1 albums in 2022. But it was the usual suspects, and most of them survive via streaming, not physical media sales.
This tells you what is driving the format’s rebirth: the artists involved, with detectable cassette sales, are all on-trend performers such as Harry Styles, Florence and the Machine, the Arctic Monkeys and others with a demographic which learned about cassettes by watching Guardians of the Galaxy, its hero’s only memento of his mother being her Sony Walkman and a mix tape. (Life mirrors art: the film’s mix tape was released as a best-selling soundtrack.) To be fair, Styles et. al. are joined by certain indie bands and other artists longer in the tooth such as Muse and Robbie Williams.
Powell’s report reminded us that (again, for the UK), cassettes dominated the market from 1985 – 1992, with sales eventually dropping below 4,000 per annum thanks to CD. Then came the kicker re: 2023. As I suspected, Powell reveals that, “On TikTok the hashtag ‘cassette’ now has over 343 million views.” This is attributed to the Gen Z audience, but the math doesn't quite support a revival. For example, Taylor Swift’s album, Midnights, alone sold 80,000 vinyl copies. Those alone are unit sales equal to more than 40 percent of total cassette sales of all titles. Which kinda makes a mockery of declaring 195,000 tapes as something of real market worthiness.
Patrick West in Spectator Life, the classy online lifestyle magazine which accompanies the heavyweight print weekly The Spectator, was even more effusive and choked with nostalgia, delivering the sensational opening line, “Move over vinyl: the cassette tape is back.” You wish.
His numbers were the same as those in the Daily Mail, sourced from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), and thus as official as they get. He added that HMV, the music megastore recently saved from extinction by a Canadian investor, “plans to bring out cassettes for ‘specific new releases’ and has credited its return to profit with a growing interest in ‘collectable’ music from an analogue era.” [Read: vinyl sales, which really powered HMV’s recovery.]
West describes himself as “a child of the 1980s and teenager of the 1990s,” admitting to “fond memories of the cassette tape,” and therefore he’s of a demographic with more disposable income than Gen Z customers, if less than us hated Boomers. He suggests that his generation will “welcome it [the cassette] back,” acknowledging that this owes much to the Walkman. Naturally, little in his article spoke of sound quality, dealing only with the cassette’s convenience, which rather sums up everything that has happened to music playback this century.
The original portable consumer media format. Courtesy of Pixabay.com/VIctoria_Regen.
He also emphasizes the importance of mix tapes, which he eloquently describes as “an adolescent rite of passage, of announcing or internally processing your individuality outside the herd, a ritual of affirmation,” as well as its role in [satisfying] “the desire to woo others, or to signify one’s commitment to one’s sweetheart.” Mea culpa: I made more than a few in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Not long after reading West’s article, I heard from my good friend Mark Cohen of Audeze, post-the Munich High-End Show. As he is at the cutting edge of the headphone market, dealing as much with Millennials-through-the-various-Gens as he does hard-core audiophiles, he has a much better appreciation of that audience, and therefore cassette buyers, than I do from my high-end, open-reel-and-LP ivory tower.
Mark alerted me to a couple of aspects of the revival, some of which support it and many of West’s points, but other observations confirmed my negativity. The latter was made real by the horrific realization that the British are getting schtupped again, sans lubricant: here in the UK, pre-recorded cassette prices are pegged with the less-costly of new LPs, at £12 – £18 ($15.00 – $22.50). (Vinyl albums from major artists are usually 50 to 100 percent higher.) So, prices won’t be part of the draw for those moving to cassette, especially as many CDs are now under £10/$12.50 over here.
He pointed out, too, that recordable CDs don't figure in the modern world as a means of copying streams or for assembling compilations, e.g., mix-tapes for the target of one’s ardor, at least not for horny Millennials nor the alphabet Generations which followed them. As computer-savvy and digital-minded as they are, and despite well-recorded CD-Rs sounding better than most cassettes, they don’t figure at all for under-40s. Or maybe even under-50s.
Whatever the promised cassette market may or may not become, history lessons are being ignored for a frisson of sensationalism in lifestyle articles. Lost in the mists of time to these champions of cassettes are the efforts that were needed to make them sound good, that is: better than merely acceptable. Admittedly, in some cases, cassettes could attain performance nearly of high-end quality. What it took, though, were hugely expensive decks, new tape formulae (also expensive) and the application of noise reduction, including so many flavors of Dolby that I stopped counting. These combined to make home recording viable if quality mattered as much as in-car, personal hi-fi or mix tape usage, while limited numbers of audiophile cassettes also appeared from the various specialist labels.
Cassettes’ unreliability is glossed over completely or treated as mildly humorous, all but ignored by the pundits aside from, say, cartoons about old farts recalling the use of pencils for spooling miscreant tapes. Some dare to cite vinyl LP vulnerability versus tape, exaggerating the fragility of the former while disregarding the latter’s susceptibility to heat, magnetism, dirty tape heads and pinch rollers, and other forms of mistreatment, and the need for regular tape deck maintenance.
Anyone of a certain age will remember something like this happening. Courtesy of Pexels.com/Bru-nO.
Sure, LPs suffered, but only if poorly handled or stored. Even so, they were hardly more self-destructive than cassettes. I don’t recall LPs as having any innately hateful talents as the unspooling of a cassette in one’s car player. Repeatedly. The only – I repeat ONLY – advantage of cassettes over LP was their portability, whether one was interested solely in playback, or in recording as well, in which case they made open-reel seem like a form of medieval torture.
But here’s the crux of the matter. As was mentioned in Copper 189, at no point post-1983 was there a time without new turntables, arms, cartridges, phono stages or, most importantly, LPs. As for cassettes, they all but disappeared, with limited blank tapes available, an insignificant number of pre-recorded tapes and, as far as I can ascertain, for some years now there was only one domestic [i.e., non-portable, full-sized] cassette deck on the market, a twin-tape machine from TASCAM. What’s left? Nasty personal tape players craving tapes to chew up and spit out.
Time to peer into the future, and all that portends: for me, where the cassette revival differs most from the return of vinyl LPs and why it probably will not attain the same traction will be the lack of support from the major hardware companies. No, make that any hardware manufacturers, large or small.
While manufacturers like Pro-Ject, VPI, Rega, Thorens and dozens of others kept turntables in production, the giant brands were happy to ignore LPs, dumping them for CD and now streamers, ad nauseam, until vinyl hit critical mass. Now these multinationals have jumped on the vinyl bandwagon, with only a few earning a pass for not completely abandoning vinyl, such as Technics with its DJ decks, and Denon for its cartridges.
[Brief, tetchy aside: I know one specialist turntable manufacturer who despises the major consumer brands for their carpetbagger behavior, after the specialist hardware manufacturers did all the hard work for some decades. The same goes for the major record labels, which are now making life difficult for the audiophile labels which licensed their music when they couldn’t be bothered to press records. They now want the sales of those $50-plus 180-gram pressings, and to hell with the specialists. But while I understand this manufacturer’s fury, I also accept one thing: ethics will always take a distant second place – no, make that 10th – after profits. And I say that as a fire-breathing capitalist.]
It is unlikely the original cassette deck makers will do the same for cassettes. As for the top tier, do you see Revox, Nakamichi, or Tandberg returning with high-end cassette tape decks, let alone Sony, Technics, Denon, TEAC, Luxman and the rest? I do not because it begs a second question, which explains why the cassette’s return will remain low-fi: the demographic embracing cassettes circa 2023 couldn’t give a sh*t about sound quality, let alone indoor playback. They will revel in their $29 plastic USB personal players and/or recorders.
The fabled Nakamichi Dragon, one of the finest cassette decks ever created. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/JPRoche.
So back to Mr. West, for the best sum-up of what is driving the cassette’s return: “This revival of cassette tapes could be connected to a retrospective vogue for all things 1990s, which apparently is in fashion among the youth…The revival in the cassette tape no doubt also owes something to the nostalgia of we fortysomethings, to those of my generation undergoing a benign mid-life crisis. This is entirely fitting. The cassette tape itself is intimately connected with memory and remembering.”
Mazel tov, Mr. West, you nailed it, so thanks for the wander down Memory Lane. But please recall, too, another trenchant quote, which I cite far too often and should have made into a business card or T-shirt as I, too, continue to wallow in yesteryear’s warmth, lately through aged hardware and therapy. Once more, I turn to L.P. Hartley, who wrote in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/ - NFT CAR GIRL - .