The Cassette Comeback Isn’t What You Think It Is

Leading up to Cassette Store Day on Oct. 13, we’re celebrating the humble cassette tape and its influence with the help of thought leaders, cassette kingpins, and the Discogs data team. Welcome to Cassette Week at Discogs! Don’t forget to check out the CSD releases available in the Discogs Database.

By Dr. Lisa Foster, Guestroom Records

When you walk through the doors of Guestroom Records in Louisville, Ky., the tapes are quick to greet you. Located at the front of the store directly underneath the check-out counter, our humble cassette catalog tends to hover at roughly 5% of the store’s album inventory. The selection is small, but well-balanced between primarily indie label new releases, local releases, and previously owned gems.

In the past four years, cassette sales in Louisville have grown more than 35%. At the end of 2017, they were up almost 42% in our sister Oklahoma City store. These kinds of numbers and similar Nielsen findings have led many to herald a great cassette resurgence, anchoring the uptick at least in part to the Guardian of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 1 release. Admittedly, the sales increase seems compelling, and the profit margins can be very good, but volume of cassette sales in relation to LPs and CDs is low. Real low.

Overall growth in Louisville constitutes a mere 0.08% shift in total album sales — from 0.32% in 2015 to a slightly heftier 0.4% in 2018. At this rate, we could be watching Guardians of the Galaxy 8 as part of a laserdisc resurgence before cassettes constitute even 1% of our total album sales.

Cassettes are better viewed in independent retail as continuous-growth analogue options that diversify the physical media audience. Tapes persevere as a cost-conscious and practical choice for those interested in participating in the independent economy. They are steadfast DIY warriors, offering low-risk investment for collecting and discovering new music and supporting local scenes. Tapes are cheap, portable and tied to communities in a world where increasingly vinyl struggles to do so. And like vinyl once, tapes are progressively part of young people’s lifestyle culture, offering an invaluable foray into gaining life-long indie customers.

Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol 1 cassette for saleGuardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 1

It must be noted that the uptick in cassette sales correlates with a general upward trend in the retail prices of vinyl. Since 2015 the median retail for a new album in our store has risen approximately 20%. For the cost-conscious physical retail consumer in search of more durable goods, cassettes are a viable alternative. A new release from Chicago indie band LaLa LaLa (via Hardly Art) last week offered an affordable limited-edition color LP for only $17, but the same album on cassette retailed for a mere $7.

Two years ago, I vividly remember buying a young woman’s vinyl collection — mostly new indie releases. When I asked why she had decided to sell, her answer was clear. “I’m just gonna get these on tape,” I recall her saying. “Pretty much everything I want is coming out on tape. I don’t have enough money to keep up with vinyl, and I’d rather buy three albums today for the money than one.” Price point is key to understanding cassette growth. Even in a collector’s marketplace, the most expensive tape sold on Discogs ($4,087) clocks in at only 15% of the most expensive record sold ($27,500) on the platform.

Cassettes offer freedom from vinyl’s economic drawbacks and reassert value in portable physical media. Hands down, the largest quantity cassette sales per transaction is to people who want to listen to an album now; in their car, in their boat, in their work truck and, most commonly, in their touring van. Artists and music makers drive independent retail cassette sales as much if not more than emerging lifestyle branding.

Prince - Versace Experience cassettePrince’s The Versace Experience

The format has long offered affordable production options for DIY bands, labels, and scenes. Since its emergence in 2015, releases on Louisville’s Auralgami Sounds (primarily a cassette label) have averaged 10% of yearly tape sales in our store, not including local self-releases or sales from like-minded regional cassette labels. While the same music is available digitally, loyal physical media consumers regularly cross formats to support bands and scenes.

While many are quick to dismiss cassette consumption as misplaced “hipster romanticism” or mass-marketed “object nostalgia” on the one hand — or inflate its cultural significance on the other — tape consumers might better be viewed as simply physical media loyalists. Buying a tape can be a complex consumer choice of balancing cost, quality, and album affinity.

Just this morning, I watched a teenager choose between the new Twenty One Pilots album on vinyl or cassette. “Why’d you decide to go for the tape?” I asked. “Is it because it’s so much cheaper?” “Yeah,” they said, “I like that its cheaper, but I also just like my tape player. I mean…I have more vinyl than tapes for sure, but I think I just really want this one on tape.”

Wanting “this one” is a clue to what cassette consumerism is really telling us. Cassette consumers are significant not because of a surge in sales, but because they diversify the marketplace by integrating and exercising different choice criteria. This customer wasn’t particularly concerned about what color vinyl the record was on or the limited nature of the run. They weren’t seeking the “purest,” highest quality album they could find. Instead, cassettes often get chosen because they are an immediate, economically viable, and culturally significant forms. That ultimately holds the capacity to broaden independent retail’s reach.

Cassette Week at Discogs

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  • Mar 1,2020 at 17:20

    A lot of my CD’s have oxidized even being stored properly. There is a reason why we archive things on tape. When stored properly, it lasts a very long time.
    I very much prefer the sound of a well recorded tape to a CD. The digital side tends to be more fatiguing where as the tape has far more depth. Instruments just sound better in analog form.
    Tapes off tremendous portability and to me, are mechanically beautiful. All the different types and formulations are fun to nerd out to if you are into that kind of stuff.
    If you haven’t heard a tape on a Nakamichi 3 head, Revox, Tandberg or a good TEAC then you are missing out.

  • Nov 30,2018 at 18:44

    I have always placed cassettes over cd vinyl mp3 and other format.Not because of its portability durability or cheapness.Mainly due to the soft sound quality.While in digital sound frequency plays the vital role n generally of high frequency.Wavelength is neglible which have a very strong effect in human ear.Even digital video lacks detail.Its only the two extremes and nothing between it.

  • Nov 3,2018 at 02:36

    Interesting read Lisa, and I heartily agree. Vinyl is king, but cassettes are fun too. From a band’s perspective, you can put out 100 tapes for $300 where 300 LPs would cost $1500+, and I think that is a lot of what is driving the resurgence in tapes.

  • Oct 12,2018 at 20:50

    also, certain releases were “cassette only” back when I was younger. Great stuff , like The Cures’ “Carnage Visors” was originally only released on cassette (packaged with the album “Faith”). So, it made sense to have a good cassette deck, and a cassette collection

  • Oct 12,2018 at 20:37

    Oh, adding to my original comment: The rewinding, fast forwarding, the inferior and sometimes truncated art/liner notes, tapes that got eaten, repaired but then had dead spots or garbling where it got eaten? They had their place for home recording and indie bands, but the commercial releases seem even more pointless now. No thanks.

  • Oct 12,2018 at 20:23

    Cassettes, are analog music sources, just like our amazing vinyl records, that is why many people still love them, they sound more genuine , and often better than a CD, if the cassette deck is well maintained , high quality, and the cassette itself , is good. Surprised that she missed this common reason why cassettes matter. I was born before computers, and digital everything, so maybe she is younger, and doesn’t understand

  • Oct 12,2018 at 19:07

    Nice essay, Lisa!

  • Oct 12,2018 at 18:46

    copyboy311 (I’m not sure if this reply is to the individual or to the story. I can’t tell from this layout.)

    It’s not really about a contest to see who wins. People have all kinds of reasons for choosing the format they want. Personally, I usually buy the music on whatever format was most popular when the music was released. What is my reasoning for this? Honestly, I’m not sure. Just “feels” right. I don’t have a lot of CDs. Mainly because there’s not much modern music I care to own. I listen to a radio station that plays a mix of modern and old (pop/rock). So that completely satisfies any contemporary music listening desire that I have. Its not memorable music to me. Probably an age thing. So, I have albums, cassettes and CDs. As a lot of people probably do. Albums have an aesthetic and sound all their own as do cassettes and even CDs. I guess CDs durability has been increased over the years. But I’ve put more than one CD in only to get a “Cannot read disk” error. While the oldest and most used of my tapes and cassettes keep on trucking. If they’ve lost any audio quality, I can’t tell. Honestly, albums, cassettes and CDs have pretty much the same sound quality TO MY EARS. I’m not talking about some scientific software analysis. My ears don’t hear like a graphic readout appears. In a blind listening test I doubt anyone can tell the difference in formats. Except for the noise you might hear on vinyl.

  • Oct 11,2018 at 21:07

    I don’t get the return of the tape at all. If you want physical media, why would that format win out today when the CD is just as cheap, just as portable, and arguably much more durable? Cassettes went away for good reason, I think. As the author mentions, it seems like misplaced hipster romanticism.

  • Oct 9,2018 at 20:17

    I have 2 dual cassette tapes drives on my stereo component system. Yes I still have components!
    One is a Denon and the other a TEAC. I listen to my old cassettes all the time and I have mix tapes that go back 30 years and are still in great shape. I love cassettes and I even took out the CD player in my car and installed an old cassette player. I still have a 12 disc player in the back for CD’s and yes you can probably tell I’m very old school and I go back a long ways.

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