As the past decade saw the resurgence of vinyls and record players, we are now witnessing cassette tapes making a comeback.
With cassette tapes reaching peak popularity in the 1980s and 90s, they seemed to die out after being replaced with CDs in the early 2000s, which were then replaced with digital albums, followed by online streaming services by 2010s.
The comeback of vinyl records
First it was vinyl records, the original way to listen to music (aside from the invincible radio), reaching peak popularity in the first half of the 1900s. Eventually, more convenient technology emerged such as cassette tapes, 8-tracks, and so on. But then, vinyls rose from the grave with a 1,000% growth rate from the 2000s to the 2010s. And in 2017, more vinyls had been sold since 1991.
As vinyl records may never again be the #1 way to listen to music, due to the convenience of online streaming, there’s a good chance it may never be forgotten. There’s just something about vinyl records that holds a dear place in many music-enthusiasts’s hearts, even those born far, far after their time — which reveals that its appeal goes beyond nostalgia.
Vinyl-lovers seem to be split into two different groups: 1) those who like the sound of it, that grainy edge that somehow makes the music sound more “real,” who spend a fortune on vintage record players; and 2) those who like the look of it, who proudly display their records on their wall like pieces of artwork, who buy those cheap Crosley record players in baby-blue, hot-pink, mustard-yellow, or mint-green just so they can take pictures of it with their hipster polaroid cameras.
I’ll admit that I’m personally in the latter group, the ones who do it for the whole aesthetic. Although I do think the sound quality is nicer than my laptop or cell phone speaker, I know there’s many vinyl-lovers out there who cringe at Crosley record players, claiming that the sound is awful. In my opinion, I’m perfectly content with my Crosley, and even more pleased with how pretty it looks!
So now that we’ve seen the comeback of vinyl records, what’s up with cassette tapes, and what is their whole appeal?
Cassette tape sales are rising
Roughly 178,000 tapes were sold in 2017, followed by over 219,000 in 2018. And then 2019 to 2020 marked a 103% increase in sales. This is an all-time high since 2003.
It should also be mentioned that all physical music, not just cassette tapes and vinyl records, but also CDs, are increasing. This is surprising, as online streaming seemed to be taking over completely. Vinyl records have always been appreciated by diehard music fans, and CDs could still be considered somewhat recent, but cassette tapes in particular seem to be the strangest and unlikeliest resurgence of them all.
Another interesting factor is that vinyl record sales seem to be highest for classic rock artists such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (although current pop artists are climbing their way up there), yet cassette tape sales in particular are mainly being sold by current pop artists such as Dua Lipa, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, and more.
Five years ago, pop artists began teaming up with streaming artists such as Spotify to promote their new albums, creating a new formula that would count record sales through “streaming plays” rather than digital copy sales. Ten years ago, pop artists were mainly relying on digital albums and trying to reconfigure their way around the severe decline in physical music sales.
And today, I never thought I’d see trendy music artists like Taylor Swift and Melanie Martinez selling music on their website through not just digital albums, not just CDs, but vinyl records too, and now… cassette tapes!
Again, I don’t think cassette tapes (or any form of physical music) will ever beat the popularity of cheap and easy online streaming (yet never say never, as I never imagined cassette tapes coming back), but it’s clear that they are making a comeback to the mainstream, gaining more and more popularity each year.
What’s the appeal?
Now that I’ve proven that cassette tapes are back, let’s examine… why?
- Nostalgia? Although music lovers come from all ages, the most popular age to purchase music is 45+ (source). With cassette tapes at peak popularity in the 80s/90s, this puts most of the music-buyers in their childhood, teens, and twenties during that time, possibly when you couldn’t have afforded as much or attended concerts instead. This can also include parents buying tapes for their kids with eagerness to relive their own childhood, an explanation for all of the teeny-bop sales.
- Novelty? With CDs taking over at the start of the 2000s, consider the fact that today’s teens have absolutely no experience with cassette tapes (scary thought!) so these, along with vinyl records, can serve as exciting novelty along with remnants of their parents or grandparents.
- Aesthetic? While vinyl records serve a romanticized aesthetic, looking classy, sleek, and artistic, cassette tapes come off as more “clunky.” Perhaps that’s the whole appeal? As vinyls and CDs have that similar disc look, cassettes come off as more original and unique, providing its own type of artsy flair.
- Practicality? With physical music on the rise again, cassette tapes are possibly the most practical of them all — smallest in size and less prone to damage (no scratches, smudges, or waring out.) Then again, CDs make it easier to skip tracks and don’t have A/B sides, but tapes are certainly easier than vinyls.
Streaming vs. Physical
I have always been a fan of physical music, just as I’m a fan of physical books for the same reasons — the aesthetic, the realness, the simplicity, the focus, and the nostalgia.
Having access to the entire music library in your fingertips can be overwhelming. Physical copies offer a deeper bond with your favorite albums, creating more connection to its message, and more memorable associations with a certain time in your life. The feeling of holding music in your hand, owning it, taking it out of its case to put in your player, is incomparable!
But I also cannot deny that online music is amazing in the fact that it offers a whole collection of essentially any song to ever exist — most of it completely free — available to stream through essentially any device: your phone, your laptop, your car, your speakers… It’s more practical when you want to access any type of music. And environmentally, it certainly saves on paper and waste.
I think both physical and online music have their benefits. When you’re very passionate about a specific artist or genre, physical music is definitely the way to go. But for those who like to hear a little bit of everything, who appreciate easy and free access to anything they want, streaming is perfect. I think the general public will always prefer streaming (or whatever new platform comes next), but many music-lovers (and hipsters) will always have some type of fascination leaning towards the vintage and original.
I see that both serve important purposes, and life wouldn’t be the same without streaming, but if I had to pick one I think I’d pick physical. CDs have always been a favorite of mine, as I’m always making mixed CDs (for myself and for others), and the sound quality of a CD is outstanding compared to aux and radio in my car (although they’re making cars without CD players now!!!) I bought my record player several years ago and it has a very dreamy and romantic vibe to it, which I love. But now with cassette tapes making a comeback, I’m digging out my old boombox from my childhood closet and giving them another chance. Maybe I should switch from making mixed CDs to making mixed tapes. Let’s see what this hype is all about. I can open my mind to the fact that cassette tapes could be the future of music…