Pause. Stop. Rewind! The cassette, long consigned to the bargain bin of musical history, is staging a humble comeback. Sales have soared in the last year – up 125% in 2018 on the year before – amounting to more than 50,000 cassette albums bought in the UK, the highest volume in 15 years.
It’s quite a fall from the format’s peak in 1989 when 83 million cassettes were bought by British music fans, but when everyone from pop superstar Ariana Grande to punk duo Sleaford Mods are taking to tape, a mini revival seems afoot. But why?
“It’s the tangibility of having this collectible format and a way to play music that isn’t just a stream or download,” says techno DJ Phin, who has just released her first EP on cassette as label boss of Theory of Yesterday.
“I find them much more attractive than CDs. Tapes have a lifespan, and unlike digital music, there is decay and death. It’s like a living thing and that appeals to me.” Phin left the bulk of her own 100-strong cassette collection in Turkey, carefully stored at her parents’ home, but bought “20 or 25 really special ones” when she moved to London. “I’m from that generation,” she says. “It’s a nostalgia thing – I like the hiss.”
But not everyone is keen. Peter Robinson, founder and editor of Popjustice, believes the trend for tapes is a gimmick too far. “Cassettes are the worst-ever music format, and I say that as someone who owns a Keane single on a USB stick,” he says. “I can understand the romance and the tactile appeal of the vinyl revival, but I’m actually quite amused by the audacity of anyone attempting to drum up some sense of nostalgia for a format that was barely tolerated in its supposed heyday. It’s like someone looked at the vinyl revival and said: what this needs is lower sound quality and even less convenience.”