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Cassettes Store Day 2019 & a love letter to the perfect pocket sized format

My love of cassettes started the way things often did with my 12 year old self, with a floppy haired boy who used to stare at me intently in English class. To save his blushes 20 years later, I’ll refer to him as Gil Grissom, after my second favourite TV detective. It was bitterly cold Monday, one of those days where you had to uncomfortably double up on tights under your school skirt and he presented me with a cassette with scruffy hand writing on it “Lowesy’s Weekend Mix Volume 1”. It was one of those TDK 90 minuters and had a list of 18 songs on. 

My heart melted when I realised he had sat and recorded all the songs from the top 40 charts he thought I would like. I listened to it all that night, I could hear the clunky click where he had stopped and started the recording and tried to miss off the radio presenter talking over the start of the track. He was drastically wrong about my taste in music, I had to fast forward through half the songs, sorry Gill Grissom, I never did have to heart to tell him that bit but it was still love at first listen. Not so much with the boy, sorry again Gil Grissom, but with making my own tapes. I would record my own radio shows announcing the next song and I remembered this fondly when I first started presenting on Fab and Pie Radio over 20 years later.  

In 1989 83 million cassettes were bought by British music fans until the CD then finally the download obliterated the format but with everyone from Ariana Grande, The Slow Readers Club to punk duo Sleaford Mods taking to tape, Bjork reissuing all her old albums on tape and Urban Outfitters selling four different kinds of cassette players to their hipster twentysomething audience a mini revival is gradually growing.

Pause, Stop. Rewind! 

Yes you heard me cassettes are back! Once available in charity shops for bulk buy deals of 10 for £1 the humble cassette is making a comeback. Sales have soared in the last year up 125% from 2018 totalling more than 50,000 cassette albums bought in the UK, the highest volume in 15 years. Ok it’s not quite 83 million….. but there is a definite growing demand for this piece of musical history. 

Independent labels are celebrating the rise of the cassette due to the cheaper production process Adrian Thompson of Manchesters AnalogTrash label explains why those chose the format for their releases;

“Even in the age of streaming and digital music, there’s still a demand for physical media and real, tangible art that you can hold in your hands. For us, cassettes allow us to create interesting, affordable and diverse short-runs of artefacts to accompany the music that our label releases. Vinyl and CDs are cool and all, but cassettes are our faves.”

Manchester indie label Sour Grapes currently release purely on cassette and had this to say;

“We release cassettes for a few different reasons. We wanted to work with physical releases as oppose to just online ones, it’s nice for people to hold onto a piece of music. We chose cassettes over CDs because they are a bit quirky and people have fond memories of tape. CDs are too easy to scratch. Cassettes have also helped us reach a point where we can progress on to potential vinyl releases in the future as well” 

But it’s not just indie labels with short releases fuelling the revival as mainstream artists are using the format too. One of the first cassettes I was bought was Kylie Minogue’s self titled album and ironically the leading cassette sold in 2018 was  Ms Minogue’s new album ‘Golden’ released as a limited edition glitter-gold clear cassette. Next up was the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 sound track, Titled ‘The totally awesome Mix tape Volume 2’ followed by Snow Patrol’s new album ‘Wildness’ and the 30 Seconds to Mars album ‘America’.

The Slow Readers Club released a cassette version of third album ‘Build A Tower’ as a limited edition signed by the band. Singer Aaron Starkie explained the reasoning behind the move, “We fancied releasing on cassette for a few reasons, it’s a quirky 80s thing that reminds us of when we were kids. It’s cool from a design point of view and most importantly it’s another format that counts towards chart position.”

But do these sales really have an impact? The simple answer is unfortunately no. Streaming accounts for nearly two-thirds of music consumption in the UK, and while the demand for vinyl is up by 2000% since the format’s lowest ebb in 2007, the market share for cassettes is still the size of gnats tactical overall.

According to Official Charts, cassette sales account for 1% of music sales. The reasons for this is pretty simple playability is still pretty dreadful compared to all other formats, the quality of sound isn’t as high as digital or vinyl, so it loses out there, it’s hardly built for DJs plus the majority of music is now listened to on mobiles or laptops and I can’t see Apple adding a cassette deck to their next phone. Cassettes will never regain their place within the music industry but for fans and collectors, that’s not really the point of buying a tape. It’s having the music in a physical format, something that you can keep due to the tangible nature of the product. And in a society that has always loved a keepsake, fans will seek out the cassette as a piece of history in a way that download can never be.

As for Gil Grissom, he went on to make volumes 2, 3 and 4. His choice of tracks got better and the inlays got more creative with cut out collages from Smash Hits but gave up after that and turned his attentions to the captain of the netball team who could swish her hair like a Loreal advert long before Loreal was even a thing and didn’t mind snogging without the need to stop and breath in the playground. I was briefly devastated but deep down knew I missed the tapes more than him. But he will always be the perpetrator of one of the greatest romantic gestures I ever received and I will always believe that romance died a little when we all stopped making each mixtapes. As let’s face it a spotify play list, even when the sender has paid for premium doesn’t have the same effect.