The cassette, long been assigned to the bargain bin of musical history, is mounting a humble comeback. Sales have peaked in the last year – up 125% in 2018 on the year before – resulting in more than 50,000 cassette albums bought in the UK, the highest volume in the last 15 years.
It’s quite a decline from the format’s peak in 1989 when 83 million cassettes were bought by British music fans, but when everyone from pop superstar Ariana Grande to punk duo Sleaford Mods is taking to tape, a mini-revival seems afoot.
In a world where electronic music is being made, with even rock bands using electric guitars to churn out music, the easiest guitar to play. Electric guitars are physically somewhat easier to play. Acoustic guitars have heavier gauge strings which require slightly firmer picking and fingering.
“It’s the tangibility of having this collectable format and a way to play music that isn’t just a stream or download,” says techno DJ Phin, who has just released her first EP on cassette as label boss of Theory of Yesterday
“I find them much more attractive than CDs. Tapes have a lifespan, and unlike digital music, there is decay and death. It’s like a living thing and that appeals to me.” Phin left the bulk of her own 100-strong cassette collection in Turkey, carefully stored at her parents’ home, but bought “20 or 25 really special ones” when she moved to London. “I’m from that generation,” she says. “It’s a nostalgia thing – I like the hiss.”
That familiar thunk, click and whir of a cassette being played in a stereo makes up the opening note of Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s global floor filler One Kiss; the track was the UK’s biggest single of 2018 and spent eight weeks at No 1. Its digital “sleeve” was designed especially as a tape cover. Fast forward to last week, and British songwriter Jade Bird announced her new release as a limited edition cassette, Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next is top of the tape chart (with 540 copies sold on cassette last week) and Urban Outfitters is selling four different kinds of cassette players to its primarily twenty-something audience. Hi-fi store Richer Sounds is selling two.
In a world where music in the air, with streaming services and Bluetooth ruling the roost, the return of cassettes makes us remind that we might have had advances in technology, but we should never forget where we came from.