Ideas for a brighter future for all

Rewinding the times

Audio cassettes are back!

Maybe you used them in your childhood? Maybe you gave your first teenage crush a carefully selected playlist recorded onto one or maybe you just recently learned about them through social media – audio cassette tapes.

Yes, they’re back. In fact, some argue they’ve never went away. The interest in cassette tapes has been growing continuously in the past decade as indicated by rising sales numbers. The music data provider Luminate recorded a jump from 173,000 in 2020 to 343,000 sold cassettes in the United States in 2021. In the UK, cassette sales rose to more than 185,000 units, the highest number the British Phonographic Industry has recorded since 2003.

DIY and independent music driving resurgence

But why are cassette tapes a thing again? Isn’t the sound quality inferior to all other music formats? There is more than one answer to this question as cassette tapes are not only meant for playback but also can be easily recorded on. For many Do-it-yourself musicians in independent music scenes this makes the format the perfect choice for music they record at home. Many so-called bedroom producers who make Ambient, Noise, Hip Hop, Metal or Punk music have grown to favour cassette tapes for their releases over vinyl records.

Although a lot of musicians and music enthusiasts still view vinyl records as the more authentic format for music, the peaked interest in records has caused production costs to skyrocket. Not only is the production of vinyl records expensive but also restrictive as pressing plants ask for a minimum order of at least a few hundred pressings that quickly add up to a few thousand dollars for producing a release. A big investment and risk for amateur musicians and label operators if they don’t sell enough records to break even with the costs. On top of this, waiting periods to produce a vinyl release can last up to twelve months or longer.

Producing cassette tapes is easier, quicker and less expensive. Pressing plants such as Duplication.ca or National Audio Company ask for lower or no minimum number for cassette orders. Cassettes can be recorded at home and the artwork for their paper inserts, so-called j-cards, can single-handedly be printed on a consumer printer or at a copy shop. However, for many cassette tapes are not an audio format per se anymore. Have you ever brought a beautiful seashell home after a trip to the beach? Cassette tapes function in a similar fashion for concerts. They are material mementos that people can pick up at a local gig to support an artist they liked. Compared to vinyl records, cassettes are much cheaper and smaller and so the threshold for picking one up is lower. Like the seashell, they often end up as decoration on people’s shelves especially as many people do not own cassette players anymore.

Cassette tapes produced during the 1980s and 90s by the likes of TDK, Maxell and Sony where utilitarian, had high-grade magnetic chrome tape inside them and were not necessarily pretty to look at. Cassette tapes nowadays in contrast are produced in vibrant colours such as neon green or gold glitter and feature elaborate artwork – they look nice on shelves, Instagram posts and TikTok videos. However, most of them are equipped with sonically inferior ferric tape. In a nutshell, high fidelity audio is out, and premium visual appearance is in which means the cassette tape has experienced a so-called visual turn. As most music consumers don’t own cassette players anymore it is common for cassette releases now to come with a piece of paper that features a download code that can be used to download the Mp3 version of the music or get streaming access. The majority of independent music releases on cassette are distributed on the website Bandcamp that allows artists and labels to upload and sell their music digitally as well as merchandise such as t-shirts, tote bags and cassette tapes.

Media artefact
"As most music consumers don’t own cassette players anymore it is common for cassette releases now to come with a piece of paper that features a download code that can be used to download the Mp3 version of the music or get streaming access."
Dr Benjamin Duester

So, some people only use new cassettes as novelty display items but there is still a significant number of music enthusiasts who regularly listen to tapes. For them, the characteristic hiss and sound of cassettes adds to the listening experience for genres such as Ambient, Dreampop, Lofi or Shoegaze music that already use washed-out soundscapes. Listening to cassettes is not necessarily a lesser experience for them than listening to the music on Spotify but just a different and interesting way to experience music. There is this idea of media archaeology: the more media and technology humanity produces, the more of it becomes lost or obsolete. But researching and engaging with things that historically understood are obsolete can still be an enriching and inspiring experience. Cassette tapes are in this sense culturally related to classic cars or fireplaces in modern homes – yes, they’re technically not necessary anymore but still can be a lot of fun to interact with and hold the opportunity to teach us important aspects about how we engage with the material world that constantly surrounds us. 

Author

Dr Benjamin Duester is a Resident Adjunct at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research where he is investigating the cultural and economic significance of cassette tapes for current DIY music scenes and the political ecology of music’s materiality in the 21st century.

As a cultural sociologist, Benjamin works in the fields of popular music, materiality studies and political ecology. His previous work includes research for local governments on cultural infrastructure and live music planning and policy and a transnational national study of current circuits of cassette production, distribution and consumption across Australia, Japan and the USA.

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