Cassettes may seem like a relic of music’s past, but sales of the analogue format actually increased by a staggering 74 percent in the US last year.
129 thousand cassettes were sold in 2016, accounting for roughly 0.06 percent of all albums sales.
Which is tiny, but considering the format was essentially assumed dead and the fact that overall album sales are declining, any increase is something to take note of.
What’s behind the rise in cassette sales in the US?
Guardians of the Galaxy popularised the format in 2014 releasing the soundtrack on a replica of the tape featured in the movie and it was the top-selling cassette in every year since its release.
American retail giant Urban Outfitters jumped on the cassette bandwagon in 2015, selling exclusive tapes from pop artists like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and The Weekend.
Reissues of Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain and Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP also boosted overall cassette figures.
What about Australia?
Melbourne entrepreneurs Chris Apeitos and Jake Harry have just launched dupeshop.com.au, an Australian wing of the hugely successful Canadian cassette duplication company, duplication.ca.
They believe Australia will follow America’s lead with tape sales and that the US is a good market indicator for what’s going to happen here in Australia.
“Obviously we’re a smaller market but at the same time we do share the same cultural trends,” Mr Apeitos said.
Although Australia hasn’t seen the same commercial resurgence of cassettes, sales are rising and director of Dex Audio, Australia’s only cassette manufacturing plant, Greg Williams said sales of cassettes have “more than doubled” in the past 12 months.
“We’ve been down as low as a couple of hundred tapes a month, but at the moment we’re probably up at around two thousand tapes a month, he said.
“But it’s many customers because some bands will order 50 tapes, some will order 100.”
Cassettes are the cheapest physical format of music to produce for artists because there is often no minimum order required for duplication.
“We’re finding a lot of artists that want to get into physical but can’t really justify vinyl, they’ve got minimum order quantities and the price can be quite steep, Mr Harry said.
“That doesn’t really affect the big guys, but if you’re an indie-artist and want to put something out you can get into tape much more affordably than into vinyl.”
Cassette labels Nice Music, Healthy Tapes, and Bunyip Tracks all agreed, affordability was the major benefit of releasing music on cassette.
Why don’t artists just release their music online?
The culture around physical music counters that of digital and is one for fans and collectors.
“In the case of cassettes, it is physical and it’s tangible and it’s something people can immerse themselves in more than you can listening to something online,” Mr Harry said.
Bunyip Records owner and independent artist Christopher Hill doesn’t believe in releasing music digitally.
“Digital files have more of an openness to being shared, there’s not really much of an economy there,” he said.
Dex Audio runs a record label alongside their manufacturing plant and Mr Williams said the return on digital downloads for artists was measly and streaming revenues were even worse.
“When an artist receives their revenue from a digital download it’s in the cents, less than 10¢, Spotify is even less, it’s in the decimal cents, he said.
Specifically, $0.007 for an unsigned artist per stream which equates to a paltry 8¢ for a twelve track album streamed once, and it’s about half that for signed artists.
Apart from Drake, who earned $15 million from his 1.8 billion streams on Spotify last year, the majority of artists don’t make money from streaming.
“The return on investment is a really good incentive for artists to sell a physical product, Mr Williams said.
“From a cassette, an artist may earn a dollar two dollars if they are signed to a major record company. If they are an independent artist and they are selling them at their shows they may earn 10 dollars a tape.”
Online music retailer Bandcamp champions its ethical payment of artists and unlike other online services, it sells physical music as well, with cassette sales dominating in 2016.
Who sells cassettes?
None of the major Australian music retailers sell cassettes and when asked JB Hi-Fi said it had no plans to restock tape.
“JB Hi-Fi might want to put up resistance to the resurgence of cassette but anyone who wants to get music from artists they love can jump online and get them shipped for probably cheaper than what they can get it for at JB anyway, Dupeshop’s Jake Harry said.
Bandcamp’s success is an example of a much wider trend away from mass merchants and chain-stores to online.
“Melbourne independent music stores are very strong at the moment and a lot of them are stocking tapes, he said.
Will cassette rival vinyl’s revival?
Cassettes may be niche right now, but so was vinyl ten years ago and after 11 consecutive years of growth it seems like there is no limit to its comeback.
“For vinyl to have the same resurgence and see such good figures, why can’t tape see the same?”
The difference may not be the format itself, but the mode of playing the music.
Vinyl fans can choose from new turntables at any price-point, but there are no new quality tape players on the market and no reports of any in production.
It might be time for a boombox revival.
Have you ever wondered how a cassette was made?
Photo credit- pterjan via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA