Industry Opinion: Cassette Tapes Are Back

An underground cassette revival is on the cards after official unit sales tripled in 2012. But why are young people taking an interest when it's technically the worst format available?

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Cassette tapes are clunky, unwieldy and lo-fi by today's standards.

Most labels began to abandon the format by the early 2000s, but an underground trend of releasing new music on cassette is prompting a resurgence of the format.

The sales figures are nothing significant; 604 official units were sold in 2012 in the UK in 2012, thanks to cult band Feeder offering their single "Borders" on tape, bringing the national figure up from 218 cassettes sold, according to NME.

However, the real figure could be higher, as indie labels who are spearheading the new trend are unlikely to be reporting their sales to the Official Charts Company.

So why are young labels taking the old and technically noisy format to heart?

We asked Jamie Milton who runs the cassette-only label Heart Throb, heavily inspired by the Art is Hard label. He says cassettes are well-suited to so-called lo-fi genres, which don't suffer from the noisy artefacts heard on cheap tape.

"It might not appeal to audiophiles, but for those of us who believe in music having its own individual character, cassettes can be great templates to display your own ideals," he told me.

"They're part of a backlash against digital culture and the fact that nothing can be held, felt or kept beyond filling a space in your hard drive. Labels are taken more seriously when they release something physical, and all of Heart Throb's most successful releases have been with tapes."

Jamie also notes the age of people who are embracing cassettes, around 21 or younger, who didn't see cassettes in stores when they were a common format.

If you ask me - and I'm only 26 - cassettes used to sound so obviously inferior to CDs that no-one seemed to miss their hiss and sizzle, nor the pencil you needed to wind a loose tape reel back inside. But to a younger generation who only know of non-tactile digital formats, there's a certain romance to the warmth of yesteryear. I sometimes buy vinyl records for the same reason - would an older generation see vinyl as a format that once served its needs but is now redundant next to modern technology?

Ultimately, the cassette revival is uniting young creatives in producing and releasing something as a contribution to culture, which remains the most noble deed in music. The lore of independent record labels will be far less interesting if it were about clicking 'send' on a digital distribution sites, rather than of how people spent hours folding and gluing album sleeves.

Whether you agree with the cassette trend or not, here's one stat that might surprise you: 270 albums were sold on MiniDisc in the UK last year. Now that's a nostalgia trip that really can't be explained.

Tom Davenport

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89 comments sorted by best / new / date

    GenevraLaurene
    Fucking hipsters.
    rhebbar
    hipsters or not, if the music is good, who cares.
    crazysam23_Atax
    Cassettes are lo-fi. How would it sound good?
    rhebbar
    whatever sounds good is in the ear of the beholder my friend. and read the article "He says cassettes are well-suited to so-called lo-fi genres, which don't suffer from the noisy artefacts heard on cheap tape." i know a cassette label my friend in college is starting and the music is pretty original. people who bash these so called hipsters just need to be a little more open minded (and im the furthest thing from a hipster)
    Mind_Reader7
    People still record black metal in every type of format, and it sounds lo-fi on purpose. Couldn't they just do that?
    bornIIhula
    Who the **** still fosters this opinion in 2013, get with the times and embrace the hipster ideology. We're in the most retrospective point in popular culture ever and you're like one of a handful of people who actually have a problem with it.
    SIEGE312
    And that's what I get for leaving my window open without refreshing.
    scottco86
    I like cassettes - they cost like 2 bucks so you can try out a band and if you dont like it than you chuck it out the car window (if your car still has a tape deck). I have a good tape collection but if i want to lend a tape to someone to check out i have to lend them a walkman and batteries too haha. Also....tapes dont skip
    -Retro-
    How are cassette tapes 'back' when they have a figure of only 604 sold? That's a huge boost from previous years, but just because a ton of hipsters are releasing their music on cassettes does not mean that everybody buys cassettes now.
    mberwick
    In a funny ironic twist, since Cassettes are mainstream again (604 sold made it that way) the Hipsters quit using them.
    crazyhorse174
    Could it be more down to the fact that you can copy and distribute illegal copies of albums on tape, without fear of repercussions online? You cant trace who made and shared a copy of a tape in the same way you can trace who's seeding a torrent...
    DexterF
    You can't trace who copied a CD either. And that - if done right - gets you a real 1:1 copy. Don't use the internet and copy files at work or where ever boils down to the same. The internet is for porn.
    GaryBillington
    CDs can be protected against copying though - cassettes can't. (OK, I know there are ways around the protection, but the average kid who just wants to do a copy for his mate isn't always going to want that hassle)
    gerrywm
    I like and use vinyl, but my god did I hate tapes... Hipsters being different for the sake of it. There are reasons to use vinyl over cd but cassettes are just annoying
    gerrywm
    Actually, just remembered we record our jams on a crappy old tape deck just to see how songs are developing so thats about the only use I have for tape
    phili666
    "They're part of a backlash against digital culture and the fact that nothing can be held, felt or kept beyond filling a space in your hard drive. Labels are taken more seriously when they release something physical, and all of Heart Throb's most successful releases have been with tapes." ironic considering all their albums are recorded digitally through pro-tools or some other kind of DAW. There's no warm sound when it's a digital album converted to an analogue medium. all you're hearing is the loss of quality. tapes are terrible in every way and this is a tiny growth. A growth that is only occurring because it costs next to nothing to put albums onto tape, lot cheaper than CD and vinyl for sure but even indie labels know that CD and vinyl pressings will be bought more. vinyl is making MASSIVE leaps and bounds compared to every other physical format. it's the only format that's actually GAINING popularity and sales compared to 6 years ago. It's mainly because of its collectability. Lets be honest, vinyl is a hell of a lot cooler than tapes. yay for vinyl, tapes aren't needed.
    david.carroll.5
    "ironic considering all their albums are recorded digitally through pro-tools or some other kind of DAW. There's no warm sound when it's a digital album converted to an analogue medium. all you're hearing is the loss of quality." Yes, these guys have it backwards. What really sounds cool is to record your album with tape and then transfer it to digital. Not the other way around.
    nailsarecruel
    I've lived through the days of cassette and trust me, a tape revival sounds cool until one of those SOB's get stuck in your player one time too much. And yeah...Fucking hipsters.
    Bair
    Yup, and a 15 dollar album is reduced to a puzzle of magnetic tape and plastic gears.
    krisg
    so cassette-only label Heart Throb's most successful releases have been with tapes.. no shit
    fiend1476
    I highly doubt this is a trend that will ever go mainstream. It makes sense as an unknown artist to release on cassette, since you would be able to buy a large amount of cassettes for a lower price than the same amount of cds.
    UGtom
    Certainly nothing that will go mainstream - vinyl appear popular, and they're still a miniscule percent of annual album sales. But it's a newsworthy (and interesting) point in time when a new generation takes on something like this. I bet no-one predicted it.
    xwf
    I picked up Nirvana's Nevermind at a thrift store yesterday on cassette for a quarter. It sounds a lot better than the CD version actually. The vocals have a lot more character. I don't do it out of some hipster shit, I just drive an old car that still has a tape deck, so if I find a good tape around I'll buy it.
    tukk04
    I want cassettes to come back. I like the noisy-ness because it sounds like how tape should. It has a certain honesty to it like vinyl does, and anyone that's ever used a portastudio or any tape 4/8 track knows what fun, lovable little machines they are.
    TheNameOfNoone
    Maybe some music sounds 'better' (warmer, old-school-er) like blues, rock, psychedelic, indie etc. but some music would lose on it's quality and spirit if it was on tape, like trance, dance, dubstep or any other electronic music for that matter.
    Bair
    "quality and spirit" in the same sentence as " trance, dance, dubstep or any other electronic music for that matter." Interesting.
    benjixoath
    don't be an elitist fag you make yourself look like a moron pull your head out of the ****ing 80's y'know some people do say.... you can actually have soul AND NOT PLAY A GUITAR OMGZZZZ prick
    Bair
    That was quite a rant. Well done I see "soul" coming from a keyboard, mouse and processor as much as I see "soul" in binary code.
    JelloCrust
    Well yeah, but nobody is releasing that kind of music on cassettes. Also, in terms of massive piracy, it is harder since a cassette to digital recording is going to sound awful. Yes it is easier to boot leg cassettes, but it doesn't have that big of an impact since their so cheap to make.
    DrCOOL
    604 units hardly signals a return. The format is deader than a door nail and will never make any kind of a comeback. No one in their right mind is going to trade their ipod that holds tons of music for a walkman and massive collection of space consuming tapes.
    mutex77
    Vinyl sounds good (before its worn out anyway) and I can understand why its still around. Dark Side of the Moon on a nice turntable pumped through a vintage pioneer or marantz amp sounds so warm you probably could heat the room with it. I lived through vinyl and cassettes. Cassettes were a matter of convience because they were somewhat portable. Everything else about them sucked. Theres a reason its not around. Its not the worst, 8 tracks were the worst. All the probs of cassettes and there were 4 "tracks" per side. When the players changed tracked it took a few seconds and those track changes were often in the middle of a song. I have a feeling whoever is buying these will rethink it the 1st time they have a brand new tape "eaten" by their cars tape deck and they have to remove the friggin deck to get it out.
    BassKid101
    "604 official units were sold in 2012 in the UK in 2012" >sold in 2012 in the UK in 2012 >in 2012...in 2012 Oh UG.
    Bertallica
    If this is true then I'm gonna sale all my cassettes on ebay for a massive profit.
    dudebud
    Ok so cassette tapes are back because 604 people in the UK bought them from some indie band?
    mtchkrmr
    The only good cassettes provide is not being able to skip songs easily
    Calymos
    I bet it's because they don't have CD players in their old cars. No aux port, either. I bet.
    BjarnedeGraaf
    If thats the industries opinion then I don't think the last article "guitars will make a comeback" is true either.
    fromzero
    Blank tapes average out to be about $0.33 each, blank cd's are around $0.08 I don't think its the cost
    ThatZachGuy
    I recently started recording all of my acoustic project's songs using analog and planned to distribute largely on tape, so this makes me fairly content.
    vIsIbleNoIsE
    isn't it kind of forced to be using tape for new music? the listener would be listening to an artificially colored version of the original song.
    guitarpro15
    Cassettes are ****ing great. Went to an old pawn shop and founds loads of sick tapes, including FNM's The Real Thing. It sounded so warm and amazing. I laugh at those who say cassettes sounded like shit, because they are wrong.
    ranbat
    Crummy tape decks were usually the reason tapes got eaten by players. Never had it happen in one of my home decks (Denon,Technics,Sony). But had it happen on occasion in my car decks (Sparkomatic,Kraco,Sanyo). Tapes are a great format which I have always preferred over vinyl. I like CDs too, but tapes are my favorite. There are many tape only labels out there right now, which is actually odd.
    Skullivan
    I just recently bought a cassette single from a band I like. But it's the only format they're releasing the single on, so it's kind of a collectible. Apparently it's to cut back on piracy.
    RagNarOkGWAR
    If anything vinyl records are making a comeback. They are proven to have better sound than CD. Although cd's sound more clear they don't have the depth of a vinyl record where each instrument track is pressed thus giving it a more complex sound.
    karstaag666
    It's a marketing stunt that is now being publicized (for a fee I may add) in an attempt to create a consumer trend. It wont live, it probably wont get any bigger than it is atm.
    soundsabbath
    It's a nice idea but give it 10mins and i think i'd be annoyed i couldn't do what even a cd . .can do and skip tracks accuratly. Nice little idea though.
    brent.fisher.96
    One thing that tape beats hands down over any portable digital player since 1985 is that you can buy a cassette player with a speaker that is loud enough to fill a large room and fit in your pocket and doesn't need a 2 year airtime agreement. Most digital portable speaker systems are tacked on as in "Whoops! Forgot that other people than yourself listen to music!" or have an amplifier power level such that trying to hear the 1 centimetre squeaker cone playing hard-limited 6dB dynamic range audio over the humming doorbell transformer in the basement when listening in the bedroom on a late Autumn morning with the boiler off and the refrigerator cold is exactly like trying to hear dust mites running through your lazy chair ottoman's fabric while the vacuum cleaner is running as it cleans the loveseat nearby.
    dietermoreno
    Actually, I'm buying a tape recorder and blank tapes to record CDs as tapes so I can listen in my car with out messing with the adapters, and the cassette adapter thing doesn't sound any better than a cassette anyway (full of motor whine and hiss).
    KingV911
    I don't even have a tape player anymore. I assume many people are in the same boat. I do have fond memories of cranking my older brother's Joe Satriani - Surfing with the Alien tape when I was a kid. I really liked the song Crushing Day when I was about 10 years old.
    Vicryl 2.0
    crazy how during those times i was still using cassette tapes, i never really complain about having tapes eaten or trying to skip a song... and now that i thought about it.. it can be frustrating sometimes..
    Dynamight
    Sounds like an anti-piracy measure to me.
    beau05
    Tapes are pretty easy to pirate, especially when most stereos in the 90's that came out with cassette players usually had the ability to record as well.
    JelloCrust
    But you can't mass pirate them like digital since cassette to digital sounds awful. I pirate can only pirate as much as they can afford, and if you're buying a cassette then why spend 50 cents less on a pirated copy (that will sound awful) when you can get the real thing for $2
    Revocati0n
    Tapes never went away. I have Led Zeppelins Greatest Hits Remastered, Europe's The Final COuntdown album, and the blues Brothers movie soundtrack.