Forget the vinyl revival. The cassette tape will be back on Christmas lists this year as high-profile artists ranging from Coldplay to Robbie Williams and Liam Payne release albums on a format that has come back from the dead.
The tape’s comeback has caught the industry off guard, with manufacturers struggling to get their hands on the magnetic tape needed for their production when demand suddenly picked up. The BPI, the record labels association, predicts music fans, many of them under 25, will buy 100,000 tapes in 2019, double the figure for 2018.
Cassette tape revival: a seductive format, or object fetishism?
The last time that number of cassettes were sold was 2004, when the biggest-selling albums were by Scissor Sisters and Keane.
Karen Emanuel, the chief executive of the Key Production Group, which manufactures vinyl, cassettes and CDs, said it had been amazed by the revival. “We never stopped producing them, but demand had tailed off to tapes for police interviews.”
Around 36,000 tapes had been bought in the UK by June, according to the BPI and Official Charts Company data. One of the biggest sellers was Billie Eilish, who was born in 2001 when the format was already considered close to obsolete.
The cassette of her song When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was produced in lurid UV green and orange, making it both collectible and “Instagrammable”.
Retailers predict that Robbie Williams’ Christmas Present album and new offerings from The Who, Coldplay and Beck will be among this year’s bestsellers.
Emanuel said the UK factories that Key Production works with had been scrambling to find supplies of tape earlier this year when orders started rolling in.
“It’s difficult to say exactly how many tapes will be sold this year, but I think it will be more than 100,000,” she said. “We have probably produced 30,000 to 40,000, but the [official] figures only track those going through the sales system. Cassettes are not only being released by big artists but small struggling artists too.”
The tape revival is still tiny in the broad scheme of things. The format’s heyday was in 1989, the era of the Sony Walkman, when the music industry shifted 83m cassettes and the No1 Christmas album was But Seriously … by Phil Collins.
Data from the BPI shows that music streaming services such as Spotify were behind more than half of the £866m earned by record labels last year. CD and vinyl sales accounted for £177m and £57m respectively. Cassette sales did not register, with less than 1% of the market.
As with vinyl’s comeback, however, music fans seem eager to embrace the quirks of physical formats, in this case such as winding tapes by hand with a pen and turning it over at the end of each side. Some websites also mention the hiss of the tape as an appealing feature.
Emanuel said cassettes were attractive to bands starting out because they were cheaper than CDs and could be produced in smaller production runs than vinyl.
HMV’s head of music, John Hirst, said that any artist with a fanbase was producing a cassette these days. Both artists and record labels have added tapes to album bundles that include a CD, vinyl and T-shirt in a bid to boost sales.
“The thing about cassettes is they are being bought as a collectible merchandise rather than to listen to,” said Hirst. “We don’t sell many cassettes over the counter. The sales are coming from artists’ websites.”
Because tapes were cheap to manufacture, small indie labels were also releasing music on cassette to a customer base that actually listens to them, he said, but sales were small.
The spike in tape sales coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first Walkman, which Sony has marked with a limited edition music player, albeit not one that plays tapes. Retailers including Tesco, Argos and Urban Outfitters have spied the opportunity though, and are selling budget portable cassette players and boomboxes starting at around £15.
Another British company GPO Retro, which makes items ranging from record players to phones, developed an 80s-inspired “Brooklyn boombox” that looks not unlike the one John Cusack holds aloft at the end of cult 80s film Say Anything, after noting strong sales of its shoebox-style tape recorder.
GPO’s managing director, Gary Basso said: “Nostalgia has always been a trend and it always will be. People love seeing something that was an iconic part of their past brought up to date. We are seeing big sales coming out of the Brooklyn. In the UK it has gone really crazy.
“We have probably sold around 17,000 units in the past year that incorporated a cassette player, which is about three times as much as the previous year. The people buying them are aged anywhere between 25 and over 60.”
The hit film Guardians of the Galaxy is credited with starting the tape renaissance after clever marketers released the soundtrack on a tape that looked like the one that features heavily in the film.
Top selling cassettes of 2019 so far
1 When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go – Billie Eilish
2 The Balance – Catfish and The Bottlemen
3 Madame X – Madonna
4 Step Back in Time – The Definitive Kylie Minogue
5 Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent – Lewis Capaldi
6 Wasteland – Baby Hozier
7 Happiness Begins – Jonas Brothers
8 Ripples – Ian Brown
9 Sucker Punch – Sigrid
10 Shine a Light – Bryan Adams