FEATURE: Spoolin' in the Years: Why, After Fifty-Five Years, the Cassette Still Has Its Place




Spoolin' in the Years



Why, After Fifty-Five Years, the Cassette Still Has Its Place


LIFE before the humble cassette tape…



was a little limited for the music fan. In 1935, AEG unveiled the first reel-to-reel tape recorder under the name ‘Magnetophon’. It was based around the invention of magnetic tape (1928) by Fritz Pfleumer. The instruments were expensive and very difficult to use and were limited to professionals and those who could afford them. Phillips released the cassette tape in 1963 (released in Europe on 30th August) and it was an accessible and affordable alternative to the studio-limited and bulky technology of the time. Both forms of the cassette were available in 1963 – a blank version and pre-recorded option – and was originally intended for dictation machines and, before long, improvements in fidelity led to the Compact Cassette. Although the first in-car cassette player was not introduced until 1968, the boom happened pretty fast and it was a handy and cheaper version of the L.P. The cassette came in during the 1960s but its revolution and rise did not really take place until the 1970s. It was a strange thing to those used to the rather large and distinct vinyl. Boom boxes and cassette decks became the must-have accessory and present for eager music-lovers and those who wanted to hear their music on the move. It is amazing to think what it would have been like to have a cassette in your position in the 1970s and 1980s.


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Although the explosion missed bands like The Beatles – they do have their music on cassettes but were a vinyl-released band – many people drooled given the fact they could play their favourite albums in a very compact and affordable player. The Sony Walkman came out in 1979 and, unlike its Discman cousin, was far more stable and reliable. The Discman, in my view, was flawed by one thing: the fact C.D.s would stop and jump when you moved ( a bit of a drawback unless you were stationery all of the time). I was born in 1983 but owned a Sony Walkman. The fact the Walkman was not much larger than the cassette itself meant people could easily keep them in their pockets and there was that discreet and go-anywhere quality. The price was pretty reasonable and, unlike vinyl today, cassettes were priced so that most people could build up an impressive collection soon enough! I remember having a stack of albums in my bedroom. In the 1980s, when I was listening to artists like Michael Jackson and T. Rex, I had two forms of cassette enjoyment. I possessed a great, red tape deck (double, at that!) and could pedal around the neighbourhood on my go-kart with a pal in the driving seat. The sense of emancipation and delight I got from hearing music come from this simple piece of equipment not only floods back to me nearly thirty years after the fact but has inspired my path regarding journalism and music.



If it were not for the invention of cassettes and the ability to share and play music this way, I doubt I would have gained such an impassioned and huge love. Back in the days when there were music shops and they stocked cassettes; I would collect my pocket money together and go and buy the latest big release. Although the C.D.’s advent and development won my heart during the 1990s; I was still mixing that with cassette listening and, as figures show, the cassette single was enormously popular during the 1990s. One of the downsides to the portability of the cassette was the ease in which one could pinch them! The pocket-sized prize could easily make its way from the shelf to the coat and, before you know it, they had made away with their choice. Retailers and record labels introducers larger packaging and, before long, greater security and vigilance. It was the ease in which one could purchase any album and travel anywhere with it that kick-started the move towards C.D.s and, eventually, the digital birth. The way one could have independence of sexuality, religion and culture through music was nothing short of a revelation. I remember, as a young child and teen, going everywhere with the cassette. I would be able to enjoy listening in the playground and share tapes with friends. We would swap albums and singles and have our earphones in – call someone over and get them to listen to the new Madonna album or Stone Roses single!



The decline happened after the late-1980s and C.D.s started to overtake cassettes by 1993. By 2001, only 4% of music sales were cassette-based. Although cassettes were still being used in answerphones and studios – they are still being used in industries like the police service – the C.D. was seen as more durable and expansive. The cassette could typically hold between twenty-three minutes per side; some cassettes could hold as much as thirty minutes. The flaws of the cassette and the changing technology in the C.D. world meant that handover was inevitable. Initially, the rugged nature of the cassette was beneficial to the C.D. – which would skip and jump easily and was a bane for anyone who wanted to use a Discman. Eventually, manufacturers reinforced the C.D. and it became a much more popular and beneficial form. Cassette playback suffered from varying tape speed – it meant the pitch was either too low or high when you were recording in a studio or at home. The dreaded unspooling of the cassette is something we cannot really comprehend today. Although C.D.s can be scratched and smudged easily; it is less difficult to destroy them. Cassettes would be fine but could get dirty easily and it took a while to rewind and forward them. Unlike vinyl and C.D. where you could choose a track and not have to fast-forward or back; cassettes were a bit dim-witted and that spooling issue meant a lot of tapes were being eaten and lost.

Countless times, I finished enjoying a great album or single and, when removing it from the tape player; it would be caught in the mechanism and I’d have inches of tape coming out – you’d wind it back in but find the cassette was too badly damaged or the sound quality was terrible. Although cassettes’ natural flaws and lack of evolutionary possibility; it led to the C.D. and was the first form of musical hardware that was affordable and available to all. Later technologies like the MiniDisc came out – a way of shrinking the cassette and correcting its problems – but never really survived and captured the imagination. One can look at the semi-revival of the cassette because of boutique record labels, hipsters or those mired in a flood of sepia nostalgia. Last year, Forbes reported a boom in sales through the previous year:

While plenty of attention is paid to the fact that vinyl sales continue to rise year after year, wax records are not the only physical format of music sold that is experiencing an implausible and unexpected revival.

According to Billboard, cassette sales rose a whopping 74% in 2016. That percentage means that the growth of tapes is rising at a faster rate than any other medium in music, though that’s not to say the actual number of cassettes sold comes anywhere near to those categories still losing ground.

...Data from Nielsen states that the rise in sales of cassettes still only amounted to a total of 129,000 tapes being sold in the U.S. last year, which is but a tiny fraction of any other format. To compare, there were just over 13 million vinyl records and 200 million albums (combining CDs, vinyl, digital units and, of course, cassettes) sold in the same time period. To further put the 129,000 figure into perspective, that’s about how many copies an album needs to shift in a single week to hit No. 1 during a busy month in the U.S.”.

Digital Music News offered one suggestion why the cassette is enjoying a bit of a comeback:

Indeed, a few modern hit series — including Netflix hit Stranger Things — have released their soundtracks on cassette, spurring the return.   The Marvel Cinematic Universe film and its sequel helped to nourish the once-dead cassette as well.

Hamilton, Prince’s Purple Rain, and Nirvana’s Nevermind have been among the most popular albums that saw an influx in cassette tape sales.

Now, the question is whether those represent quirky one-offs or the beginning of a trend”.

 All of this positivity and 2016/2017 celebration has been given a reality check and a bit of gravity:

In a crystal clear statement to RA, the RIAA’s Cara Duckworth Weiblinger denied any noticeable uptake in sales:

We regularly check with our music label members to see if they are reporting any change in the sales of cassettes, but there hasn’t been for quite some time. It’s such a small number it doesn’t meet the threshold of sales requirements for us to report it (we report sales by category on a scale of millions of dollars and cassettes just haven’t broken that threshold). So there has been no increase in sales of cassettes or a proactive effort to look into tracking this further.

...That said, it is true that more tapes are being sold now than in previous years. One of the world’s last standing tape factories, the National Audio Companyhas reported increased sales of 33% since 2014.

We’ve also seen a whole host of underground cassette labels crop up in recent years, plus major labels have expressed interested in the format with items like Justin Bieber’s Purpose and Kanye West’s Yeezus out on tape”.

It seems cassettes are coming back in the form of new labels and certain soundtracks. It may be a bit limited and minor but it does signal there is a lust for the technology. Maybe it is a way of connecting with the past but I think, in many ways, it is a way of connecting with music. The C.D. seems like that latchkey child that has not really caught on like the older brother but has matured faster than the young sister of the cassette. That said; the C.D. is proving far less popular today than the 1990s. Electronic forms of distribution seem to be overtaking everything and, whilst vinyl and cassette have enjoyed increased sales; the C.D. is struggling to pull in the big sales. I will bring in an article that highlights the benefits of the cassette but, to me, it is the lack of perfection and flaws that make it great. It is not expensive to replace cassettes and I feel the singles market could return if we brought back the cassette to the mainstream.

There is something old-school, pleasurable and simple about having that tape in your hand and being able to play it. Labels are getting back into them and it is a nice way of having a physical product in your hand – more compact and affordable than a C.D. or vinyl. This article was published last year and suggested why newer artists are bonding with the cassette:

For newer, less established artists, tapes are also a lower-risk investment than vinyl: If your debut EP doesn’t sell, you’re not stuck sitting on a heavy box of vinyl that took over a thousand bucks and half a year to produce.

Tapes give musicians an affordable way to sell their work to fans–usually for about five bucks apiece–and help cover their costs on the road in an age when streaming royalty checks will barely fill up the gas tank. They let fans support their favorite artists without the $25 commitment of vinyl or some other trinket emblazoned with the band’s logo. It may seem odd given the scarcity of cassette players in our lives, but if nothing else, a rectangular hunk of plastic can serve as a convenient vehicle for a free digital download of the album. Plus, it’s a souvenir.

“For the fans, there’s a certain coolness about tapes,” says J. Edward Keyes, Bandcamp’s editorial director and a longtime music journalist, who has amassed close to 500 cassettes. “You can’t quite put your finger on it. But they’re sort of fun. They’re weird little tchotchkes.”

Indeed, the appeal of tapes has more to do with collectibility and nostalgia than it does with convenience or sound quality. In fact, the lower audio fidelity of tapes is seldom seen as a disadvantage”.


IN THIS PHOTO: GPO Brooklyn Portable Boombox Music C.D. Bluetooth Radio Cassette Tape Retro/PHOTO CREDIT: eBay

Since 2013, music retailers have celebrated Cassette Store Day with special released and, with that, creating an offshoot and cousin of Record Store Day. Some claim these days are nothing more than cheesy and money-making excuses; to those who want to pay for music and have something physical (like myself), it is a great way of keeping alive a form of music that is a nice counterpoint and contrast to the rather soulless and unfeeling digital sound. The cassette tape is fifty-five this year and, like all mid-life crisis sufferers, expect it to buy an expensive sports car; have a cheap affair and get its hair highlighted! I expect there will be these rather retro and tragic reissues or the sort of vending machines you see in parts of the world – where you can buy an album or single on the street. Thinking about it, that sounds like a cool idea for the U.K. but I wonder whether the cassette is damaged when it hits the bottom; whether there is genuine music on them – you can sell blank cassettes and charge people – and how stocked they are (do you get much choice?!). I do not feel the music market should all be digital and we need to accept we have passed through the hardware stage and it is digital from here on in. Many people do want to pay for individual releases and may not have a laptop or Internet access.



Some prefer to bond with music in a very real way and not endlessly click and skip through online tracks. The article I just quoted seems to sum up the appeal and enduring brilliance of the cassette tape:

In an age when most music exists on the boundless, only somewhat navigable reservoir of sound called the internet, splintered across streaming services, YouTube embeds, torrents, and message board threads, there’s something to be said for the tangibility and simplicity of physical media. Like reading a book or a paper magazine, listening to vinyl or cassettes pulls us out of the digital ocean for 45 minutes or so and forces us to focus on one thing. What a concept.

As a bonus, Keyes notes, cassettes often look cool. “They usually do such a nice job with the cover art, especially [tape label] Orange Milk,” he says. “They have such a clear aesthetic and design. It kind of makes you want to buy them all and line them all up”.

Maybe the revival will not turn into a bloodied coup but I can feel there is change and a renewed demand for cassettes. On its fifty-fifth birthday; it is a great chance to think about all the cassettes we grew up with and the sensation we got when we clipped it into the tape deck and let it play. Its birthday should not be met with a comb-over and comfy cardigan: get it some proper-good whiskey, a day of hand gliding and top it all off with a great gig in the capital! I am desperate for shops or sellers to put cassettes back on the shelves and give me the option of varying my collection; getting a classic, old-school player and letting memories flood back – rediscover that happy affinity I had back then and provide something tangible and physical. There are no figures to suggest inroads will be made into the mainstream but I would not be shocked to see the long-lasting and legendary cassette come…

SWINGING back strong!