In the music world, vinyl records get a lot of attention when it comes to physical media. Sales for vinyl records have been on the rise for years, and now the same thing is starting to happen with cassette tapes.
The resurgence of vinyl records has been so strong that it’s not really even a “trend” anymore. In 2021, people spent more on vinyl than CDs for the first time since 1986. Cassette tape sales, on the other hand, have been very low for a long time. However, in the last five years, things are changing.
A Brief History of Cassette Tapes
The cassette tape was introduced in 1963 by Philips. The first cassettes could hold 45 minutes of music on each side, which was much more than vinyl records. But perhaps the biggest advantage of cassette tapes was their compact size.
The size of cassette tapes led to the creation of portable music players, which became incredibly popular. Cars also included cassette tape players, which meant people could listen to something other than the radio. Cassettes were also more affordable than vinyl.
Another big part of cassettes’ popularity was blank cassettes and the birth of the almighty mixtape. Cassette recorders allowed people to make their own custom tapes, which also introduced the concept of piracy to the music industry. To this day, the idea of mixtapes plays a big part in how we consume music.
A few years after cassette tapes were introduced, 8-tracks came along. They could play even more music than cassette tapes, and were still compact. However, cassette tapes remained more popular in the long haul. It wasn’t until CDs were introduced—which were essentially better in every way—that cassette tapes were topped.
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Cassette tapes make a comeback
Cassette tapes were the leading form of music sales from around 1984-1991. Since then, CDs and streaming have dominated the industry. Vinyl passed CDs in 2021, but still pales in comparison to the juggernaut that is music streaming.
Meanwhile, cassette tape sales have been slowly growing. According to Neilsen Music, cassette sales in the US grew 35% in 2017 and another 23% in 2018. In the UK, cassette sales were up 112% year-over-year in the first half of 2019. More recently, sales doubled from 2020 to 2021.
Now, those stats may sound impressive, but the actual number of cassettes being sold is still pretty low. That 23% increase in US sales in 2018 was only a total of 219,000 tapes. In the same year, 18 million CDs and 16 million vinyl records were sold. 343,000 cassette tapes were sold in 2021, and 215,000 were already sold in the first half of 2022.
There’s clearly a trend happening, but we’re very much in the early days. Some big-name artists have started releasing albums on cassettes, such as Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. However, this is not a widespread practice. Starting a cassette tape collection in 2023—especially for new music—isn’t easy.
There’s also the matter of actually listening to the cassette tapes. Unlike vinyl turntables, there aren’t many companies making modern cassette tape decks. You can find some on Amazon—like this Pyle model—but if you want a high-quality tape deck, you’re better off finding an old one on eBay.
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We’ve talked a lot about the history of cassettes and their slow rise, but why exactly is this happening? Cassette tapes have been nearly nonexistent for decades. It turns out it’s a similar story to how cassette tapes passed vinyl back in the day.
People like cassette tapes for a lot of the same reasons that people like vinyl records on turntables. A cassette tape is an entire album in order from start to finish. You can’t easily skip a song, and there’s no “Shuffle” button. That’s usually how the artist intended for the music to be experienced.
Presentation is also a big part of the equation. A cassette tape features an insert with the album artwork, and sometimes there are extra notes and goodies inside as well. It’s much more than just a 300×300 JPEG of the album cover. You’re buying a whole experience—from the way you listen to it to the way it looks and feels.
In general, it’s all about nostalgia. Cassette tapes simply do not sound as good as other methods for music playback. But just like with vinyl records, the imperfections are what people like. Music from a cassette tape has a distinct sound. If you miss that sound, it may be time to hop back on the cassette train.