Cassette tape sales are surging and, as a person whose formative music years came in cassette form, that’s heartwarming news.
Of all the retro-hipsterific trends that have taken hold in the late 2010s, this might be the most surprising. (Well, other than the return of JNCO jeans — the one fashion item that history needed to just kinda hang on to.)
Cassette tapes are back, baby!
According to Billboard, cassette album sales grew 23 percent last year, up to approximately 219,000 sold. They’ve had year-over-year growth dating back to 2014, when cassettes bottomed out at 50,000 units sold.
The credit for the resurgence is ambiguous, and split. Consider it partially the aforementioned retro-hipsterism, partially the constant hunt for the solace of nostalgia in the modern climate, and partially the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack reviving a level of interest.
In 2018, three of the 10 best selling cassette albums were Guardians properties. The soundtrack from the first film was top selling, the soundtrack from the sequel was second, and the soundtrack to its animated TV series was sixth.
The rest of the top 10 (I couldn’t find the top 11, despite searching forever and even calling Nielsen Music and using my “deeper professional voice”) is almost entirely nostalgia driven. Only a Twenty One Pilots album features fresh material. The rest of the list includes the Stranger Things soundtrack; and reissues of classic albums from Britney Spears, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Elvis, and Wu-Tang.
So if bulky, unwieldily cassettes, with all their questionable audio quality and relatively quick deterioration, are back, we have to ask… why?
And I say it’s simple: For those of us of a Certain AgeTM, cassettes are and always will be the world’s superior form of audio.
Here are the 11 reasons why cassettes are absolutely perfect.
1 | Mixtapes. Mixtapes. MIXTAPES.
There’s a reason the term “mixtape” remains in the modern lexicon. I don’t need to regurgitate too much of High Fidelity here, but John Cusack’s character (or was it a John Cusack biopic? The line was blurry) nailed his monologue on mixtapes. Making a mix CD, mix thumb drive of mp3s, or (God forbid) mix Spotify playlist doesn’t have anywhere close to the same impact. Mixtapes tell a story, even if that story is, “I’m not great at hitting record right when the radio DJ stops talking so you’re gonna get a little banter before every song, anyway I secretly love you.”
2 | You can’t skip songs.
According to a 2014 study by Spotify, there’s a 25 percent chance a person will hit “skip” within five seconds of starting a song, and less than a 50 percent chance they’ll make it to the end. Cassettes rebuild your listening attention span. I have no idea the last time I listened to an album straight through, as it was intended.
3 | They’re the correct way to record off the radio.
Could you record a song off the radio using a recordable CD player? I’ve never heard of anyone doing it. Could you record a song off the radio using your computer? Sure… but why would you? You can just record off a source with much better quality. I’m not sure anyone actually does record stuff off the radio anymore. But if it ever comes up, you’d better do it using cassette deck A on an Aiwa boombox.
4 | The nostalgic crackle of the music.
Cassettes don’t have the best audio quality — that’s more or less indisputable. In fact, they might have the worst audio quality of any of medium. But they have a distinct audio quality, one that I can instantly recognize and that takes me back to listening to cassettes on my boombox, in my Walkman, in my car. It’s the crackle and the hiss, the faint hint of the gears turning, the light friction of the tape crossing the worn pads. All of that is enough to make an audiophile cry — but it’s enough to make a retrophile happy.
5 | They bring back a certain feeling of a certain time.
I have legitimate memories of cassettes. I can remember popping in my New Kids on the Block (don’t judge, I was in elementary school, and I’m going to reveal plenty of other embarrassing cassettes I owned later in this post) tape into my clock radio with a cassette deck. I have hundreds of other memories with cassettes beyond that, too. Buying cassette singles at the store when that was the only way to get a copy of a song you liked. Playing the early Weird Al tapes that influenced so much of my sense of humor. Listening to the same three tapes over and over in my Walkman while I was in the backseat on a family road trip. All of that comes back by popping in a cassette. Maybe that’s why I still refuse to let my parents throw out my old collection of tapes sitting in their home, collecting 25 years of dust. I plan to pass those cassettes down to my kids. I’m sure they’ll appreciate them.
6 | Hidden tracks.
Hidden tracks on an album, whether a studio album or a homemade mixtape, were a staple of cassettes. You can’t hide tracks on a CD, because the number pops up when when you put in the CD. You certainly can’t hide tracks on an mp3 player (“there are 4,000 songs on here… or are there 4,001?!?”) But on a tape? Give me that surprise, that bonus. It’s nice to be caught off guard in the way a surprise track is supposed to catch you off guard.
7 | They don’t skip like CDs.
I remember when I got my first Discman. It skipped like crazy. Basically I had to keep it perfectly still, even with its “anti-skip protection.” Cassettes, for all of their caveman technology, played without skipping.
8 | They’re harder to convert to mp3s.
This alone should’ve been a reason for the record industry to keep pushing cassettes. It was really easy to convert a CD into mp3s. I remember doing it as early as 1997. There are cassette-to-mp3 devices that exist, but none of them became popular; meanwhile, every computer until about five years ago had a slot for a CD. Not that you’d even want to transfer your cassette music to mp3; the unique audio properties would just sound painfully mediocre compared to higher-quality digital tracks. All this means that the music on cassettes stayed on cassettes, where it belonged.
9 | They’re unique and collectable.
Vinyl is also having a resurgence now, and there’s overlap with cassettes in that they’re both collectable. (Far more collectable than CDs, for sure.) But when I walk into a friend’s house and they’ve got a record player and some records? I don’t blink. If I walked into a friend’s house and they had a vintage boombox and a shelf full of cassettes? I’d run back out and buy them a more expensive bottle of wine than the $8 one I brought. (Yes, just assume I’ve got a case of $8 bottles of wine in my trunk for adult get-togethers.)
10 | They’re amazing to copy.
Copying CDs was never a thing; few people had dual CD drives, and writable CDs were always an iffy and error-inviting proposition, with the CD-R+, CD-R-, CD-RW ambiguity. Copying mp3s feels (and, um, is) illegal. But popping a good cassette into one deck, a blank cassette into the other, and making a copy? It just always felt right. And legal.
11 | Every song that formed my early musical taste was on a cassette.
I got my first cassettes in elementary school. They included (again, remember I was a kid and it was the ’80s): The California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs, the Cocktail soundtrack (featuring Kokomo, among others), NKOTB’s Hangin’ Tough, Weird Al’s Even Worse, and Milli Vanilli’s Girl You Know It’s True. I got the last one from a cousin at our annual Hanukkah gift exchange. And then, as I entered my most formative middle school music years, it was Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and, obviously, The Simpsons Sing the Blues. My musical tastes grew and expanded like crazy after that, but I listened to each of those eight cassettes about 500 times. And yes, today, I’m pretty sure quite a bit of my musical taste comes from the amalgamation of those eight albums.
Anyway, having now written about 1,500 words extolling the virtues of cassettes, I’m pretty sure I have to buy a cassette deck or Walkman and get back into listening to them. No one tell my wife. (That’s right, new readers: The guy whose formative music tastes came from the California Raisins and Milli Vanilli has a wife. The world is a confusing place.)