Cassettes Are Not Making A Comeback

You might have seen the clickbait headlines: “CASSETTES JOIN VINYL IN DRAMATIC COMEBACK.” Don’t believe the hype. It just ain’t happening.

If you’re of a certain age, you know well the rise and fall of cassettes. The format was developed by Philips in 1962 as a low-fi media. Cassettes offered two things that LPs did not: they were portable and they were recordable. Players appeared in cars (playback quality was iffy, but still better than 8-tracks) and in Walkmans and boomboxes. The format’s recordability also spawned the home-brew mixtape, a bonafide cultural phenomenon. Much like the dinosaurs, it seemed that cassettes would rule the earth forever.

Then a giant asteroid named CD crashed into the earth, and cassettes died off. It’s true that they lingered on for a while, mainly as talking books, and actually sold over 8 million units as recently as 2004. But cassette players slowly vacated car dashboards, and the iPod and MP3 delivered the coupe de grâce. Cassettes disappeared entirely — almost. Seemingly out of nowhere, U.S. cassette album sales spiked up a whopping 35% from 2016 to 2017. That’s dramatic, right? Any number of news outlets breathlessly touted how cassettes were joining vinyl’s glorious ascendancy. Well, the percentage figure makes sales seem bigger than they really are. In terms of actual units, as tabulated by Nielsen Music, 174,000 cassettes were sold in 2017, compared with 129,000 in 2016. That amounts to about 0.1% of the album market. There is no “comeback.” Cassette sales are a rounding error.

Furthermore, the supposed resurrection of the cassette can be attributed to a single gimmick, and one that is easily understood. You may recall that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies used cassette playback as a minor plot device. The writers chose it because it is retro and funky, and wanted to tie the movie in with music from the period. They also chose it because, although LPs are also retro and funky, turntables just don’t work as well in outer space (the whole gravity thing). Besides, the whole LP retro and funky thing has already been overdone.

Anyway, it is because of the movie and its sequel that cassettes are seeing a sales blip. You put anything in a movie and it will cause a blip. Because of Guardians of the Galaxy, there is probably also a blip in the number of people who think raccoons make good pets. (They do not, unless they are computer generated.) So, having cassettes in the movie and playing classic tunes predictably made some people want to buy cassettes playing the same tunes. The increase in sales is due to what the industry calls an “event.”

Ergo, the best-selling cassette title in 2017 was Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (19,000 copies). The number two best-seller was Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 (15,000 copies). And, the number three best-seller &mash; you guessed it — was Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Mix Vol. 1 (5,000 copies).

So, 22% of cassette album sales were generated by the movie. Riding that tailwind, some other titles did ring a few cash registers, though sales were modest. Perusing the cassette best-seller list, you’ll find the soundtrack from the nostalgia-heavy Netflix show Stranger Things (3,000); Eminem’s The Eminem Show (3,000); The Hamilton Mixtape (3,000); and Prince’s Purple Rain (2,000). More proof that the blip is more trend than substance: a humongous 20% of cassette sales were from the clothing chain Urban Outfitters, which also sells a Hello Kitty instant film camera.

So, are cassettes making a comeback? No, they are not. Once the Guardians bump is gone, the format will return to its slumber as a sub, sub, subculture thing. At least until another “event” comes along.

brianh's picture

Vinyl’s comeback may be stronger than the cassette’s, but it too is but a blip in history. Will there always be vinyl champions? Sure, but the millennials purchasing vinyl today are doing it to be cool. Some of them don’t even have a turntable to play them on, and those that do, are probably playing them on Crosley machines purchased at Urban Outfitters.
Let’s face the facts, music is now a commodity. There is no intrinsic value to it anymore. We can thank the champions of MP3 for that, of which I include Mr. Pohlmann as a member.
Alas we live in a new world now. A world of convenience and disposability.
I just hope Gene Roddenberry’s vision of future human civilization comes to fruition.

Billy's picture

As I recall from watching ST in the 1960s, audio and video was played back from little half cigarette package sized closed boxes, AKA, digital files. Mr Roddenberry though, had the packaging much too large. A micro SD card today is hundreds of times smaller then those were displayed. Cool though, that 40 years ahead of the tech, he imagined that voice and displays wouldn't require mechanical moving parts. Cool guy (at least as far as his vision was concerned)

Mike Mettler's picture
The one thing I've been seeing of late re the cassette "revival" (kaff kaff) is that younger/hip-leaning bands are selling them at the merch tables at their shows. They think it's cool, not kitschy. Some of 'em even claim to like/listen to them. Well, we'll see how long that lasts -- but if we're *really* going to talk about tape, anyone for a real, reel-to-reel revival. . .?