Cassette tapes. Remember those? They were those things with inaccurate rewind and a habit of getting tangled or demagnetised. They’re also a dead format, right? Wrong. While it’s accepted knowledge that cassettes faded from the mainstream the best part of twenty years ago, they’ve been seeing something of a resurgence over the past few years and 2016 saw sales of the humble cassette tape rise by 74% over 2015, with the format shifting 129,000 units last year.
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Cassette never ceased to be popular in certain regions and genres; in Indonesia, for example, cassettes remained the most popular format until only a few years ago, and it’s commonplace for underground genres like noise music or vaporwave to be released exclusively on the format. For mainstream audiences though, cassettes were a thing of the past – until recently. 2016 seems to have been the year that tape really started to make a comeback however, with a good number of huge pop albums seeing cassette release for the first time in years. Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, cassettes are still not huge business. Justin Bieber’s ‘Purpose’ was released on tape last year and didn’t quite manage to shift a thousand copies. By comparison, ‘Purpose’ sold over half a million units during its first week, so cassettes probably aren’t going to topple CDs or streaming anytime soon. It does mark a significant increase in interest in the format however, and also makes cassettes something of a niche market that could certainly be profitable to labels.
The rebirth of cassette tapes in the mainstream can be traced back to just a handful of releases. Intriguingly, almost all of them are pop albums too. Cassette versions of The Weekend’s ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ had sales comparable to Bieber’s ‘Purpose’, as did Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’. The biggest seller however has undoubtedly been ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1’ – the soundtrack to Marvel’s enormously popular film. Having shifted 11,000 copies it’s responsible for a whopping 8.5% of all tape sales in 2016.
Given that finding stores that sell cassettes can still be tricky, it’s not surprising then that nearly half of all tapes shifted in 2016 (55,000) were sold online. A further 42,000 were sold through independent stores, leaving a surprisingly small 6,000 sold through major chain stores, such as Urban Outfitters.