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Forget vinyl, the revival of cassette tapes is the comeback story of the year

Tom Hoggins
Cassette tapes are in the midst of an unlikely hipster revival - EPA

There are perhaps more pressing things to worry about as our calendars prepare to tick over to the year 2020, but one challenge we find ourselves inexplicably facing is a crushing shortage of cassette tapes.

Yes, that’s right; the clunky, easily tangled storage solution of early 90s music kitsch has seen a revival that means the remaining manufacturers are struggling to pump them out fast enough.

This is, admittedly, in great part due to a shortage of high-grade gamma ferric oxide, a key ingredient in the magnetic ribbon inside cassettes.

The only factory in the world still producing the element is under renovation, but an increase in hipster demand for cassette tapes around the world is not helping. In the US, 219,000 tapes sold in 2018 compared to 178,000 in 2017; a nearly 25pc jump.

For the first half of this year in the UK, 35,000 tapes were sold compared to 18,000 over the same period in 2018. The BPI predicted that 100,000 will be bought by the end of the year.

Small potatoes, perhaps, but an almost doubling of the demand is a notable feat for a format declared all but dead at the turn of the century.

In fact, cassette sales are at their highest since 2004. But what is fuelling this most unlikely of revivals?

As someone who had both their musical and video game awakening in the early 90s, my childhood memories are littered with boxes upon boxes of cassette tapes.

Slotting in dodgily copied game compilations on the Commodore 64 (which may or may not load); listening to the entire top 40 for three hours on a Sunday afternoon ready to hit record on whatever pop trash I was into at the time; using my parents fancy tape-to-tape machine to forge heartfelt mixtapes for myself or some unrequiting beau.

Growing up in the 90s, cassettes were still a major musical mainstay

Growing up in the 90s practically demanded being a walking cliche. I’m sure there are photographs of me in stunning tracksuits and day-glo Air Jordan sportswear that I hope never see the light of day. The nostalgia factor is strong for people like me; faintly bewildered thirty-something millennials hoping for a simpler time.

But it wasn’t simpler, not really. Cassette tapes were kind of rubbish, without even the authentic cool and sound quality that made the vinyl reprise much more understandable.

But they were honest, flexible and yours: making a mixtape was a project of passion (and sometimes perseverance to avoid taping over the end and beginning of songs) and you ended up with a physical thing to scribble on and call your own. You don’t quite get that with a Spotify playlist, brilliant and convenient as they are.

It is quite possibly that sense of ownership and physicality that has helped the cassette back into modern culture, presumably put there by TV and filmmakers that grew up with the format.

Many put the spark of this revival down to the use of the cassette in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which opens with hero Peter Quill kicking around aliens while listening to Redbone’s 1974 banger ‘Come and Get Your Love’ on a tape lovingly compiled by his mother labelled ‘Awesome Mix Vol 1’.

It is, without question, the most important object in the universe to Peter, even though the whole film is about tracking down a stone that can destroy anything it touches.

The cassette has cropped up in other cultural phenomena such as the Byers brothers in Netflix hit Stranger Things listening to The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go on a mixtape was another notable glimpse of the curious relic, for instance.

This lead to companies releasing soundtracks on cassette as thematic collectibles. The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack made up 22pc of cassette sales in 2017, while Stranger Things was also one of the top selling tapes.

The revival has been partly brought on by cassette tapes emergence in pop culture such as Guardians of the Galaxy

This has lead to modern artists releasing albums on tape, often with colourful casing to offer fans a physical object to go with their digital playlists.

American rising star Billie Eilish, born during cassette tape twilight in 2001, released her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? on a lurid, glow-in-the-dark green tape. It has been the UK’s biggest-selling cassette tape of the year. Cheshire rock-band The 1975 have also found success with their collectible cassette (top of the pops in 2018, no less, with 7,500 tapes sold) while pop superstars such as Taylor Swift, Robbie Williams Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber have also released albums on tape.

While cassette sales are tiny compared to even the vinyl revival, it is telling that a number of artists are seeing the benefit in including the format in merchandise drives.

It is perhaps no coincidence, either, that the resurgence in cassettes comes at the time of the Sony Walkman’s 40th anniversary. Released in 1979, the Walkman came to drive and define cassettes across the Eighties and well into the Nineties.

For all of the cassette’s myriad flaws -jammed boxes, tangled or snapped tape, no way to skip songs- that it became the first properly portable way or listening to music (besides slinging a boombox over your shoulder) is a great part of why it takes its place in musical history.

The Sony Walkman helped the cassette become the leading musical format from 1985 to 1992

While the compact cassette as we know it was developed by Philips in 1962 for dictation, its relative cheapness made it the perfect foil for mass production. Between 1985 and 1992 it was the dominant format for music -hitting a height of 83m tapes sold in 1989- until CDs came along and spoiled the party.

Due to that place in history, it is no surprise to see a hip revival of the format, however small it may be compared to vinyl.

It certainly sparks a certain nostalgia in this 30-something’s mind. Though I do wonder if we are reaching the law of diminishing returns on musical tech nostalgia.

While people still buy CDs now, for instance, are we likely to see a similarly fond remembrance for the shiny discs prone to bloody big scratches in a decade or two’s time? Will CD-writers and Spotify playlists have the same sense of achievement has plugging your way through a mixtape. Who knows? Perhaps the cassette tape revival is simply part of a grander nostalgia for the pure act of actually owning music. A physical celebration of your taste that is harder to achieve with digital tunes in the cloud.