Who the hell is buying cassettes in 2020? NME investigates

It seems UK music lovers are currently revelling in rectangular nostalgia — there's already been a 103% increase in cassette sales in 2020

When was the last time you celebrated your favourite artist’s new album or single release by heading to your local record shop and opting to purchase the cassette version? If your answer is “sometime in the 1990s”, then, yeah, fair enough — or is it?

The Official Charts Company (OCC) delivered something of a curveball late last week (July 16) by announcing that over 65,000 cassettes were purchased by the great British music-buying public in the first six months of 2020. That’s a staggering 103% increase in cassette sales compared to the same period last year, while those 65,000 sales have already eclipsed the total amount of cassettes that were sold in 2018. If this upward curve continues, then by the end of the year cassette sales in the UK could top 100,000 units for the first time since 2003.

Surprising news? Well, maybe not if you’re a fan of the likes of 5 Seconds of Summer (who matched the 12,000 first-week cassette sales of the 2002-released compilation Now 52 with their latest album ‘Calm’), Lady Gaga or The 1975, who, respectively, are behind the three best-selling cassette releases of 2020 so far. The likes of Sports Team, Tame Impala and Blossoms are also sitting pretty in the OCC’s rundown of the top 20 best-selling cassettes of the year, as are Dua Lipa, The Strokes and Ozzy Osbourne.

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Tame Impala - 'The Slow Rush' cassette
Tame Impala’s ‘The Slow Rush’ cassette is one of the biggest-selling tapes of the year in the UK (Picture: Tame Impala)

Cassettes, it seems, are not the outmoded physical format that many people might’ve casually rubbished them as. After all, countless bands and solo artists have been incorporating cassettes into their release packages in recent years, and music fans are clearly taking up the option by snapping them up in their thousands. Let’s not forget, either, the plucky organisers of Cassette Store Day, which is set to be held this year on October 17 (its eighth annual edition) to once celebrate the format.

If this resurgence continues, then, might we see the same kind of universal revival that vinyl has enjoyed in recent times being applied to the humble cassette tape?

Glass Animals drummer Joe Seaward reckons that “we’ll have to wait and see” when it comes to proclaiming the recent revitalisation of the format as being substantial evidence of the second coming of the music cassette. Like many new releases, Seaward’s band’s upcoming new album ‘Dreamland’ will be available to buy on cassette next month — although he maintains that Glass Animals’ fondness for this particular physical format isn’t “about bringing back the cassette” (although “fans who have old cars are obviously very keen”).

“It is another really nice excuse to make something beautiful that people can have as a piece of art,” he tells NME. “Our new record is about nostalgia, about looking back on your life and questioning what makes you you, what the formative moments are in your life have been and reflecting on them. It’s a trend I’ve noticed among friends and colleagues during the pandemic: people are looking back to happier and easier times. It’s easier than looking forward sometimes.

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“People are watching old TV shows, films and listening to old music,” he adds. “I think that might be partly to do with why the cassette is having a bit of a resurgence.”

Banquet Records’ Jon Tolley says that while he and his colleagues at the independent Kingston record store didn’t get involved in running a record shop for cassettes, “it is now a part of what we do.” Banquet don’t sell too many standalone cassettes, but Tolley adds: “When we do sell a bunch is in special deals around combos and limited-run cassettes around [album] release week. Labels are keen to get as many week one sales as possible, and we’re keen to sell the stock. This week we’ve [sold] dozens of tapes by The Streets for example, but just the one [by] JARV IS [‘Beyond The Pale’, by Jarvis Cocker‘s new side project].

“With a lot of what we do, we cater for the demand – and don’t always create it,” he explains. “There’s very little net profit on the tapes — as there is on CDs — so this is more about making sure we can sort out fans of a band who choose to shop with us. We’ve had a few exclusives recently, like All Time Low and The 1975.”

As for whether the cassette revival can follow in the footsteps of vinyl, Tolley says it’s unlikely. “It’s about as sustainable as the 99p 7”. It’s all about being a chart asset rather than a working person’s art collection which helps define them. Although they’re quick, easy and cheap to produce, there’s not the money in [cassettes] to be much more than a fun accessory. But fun accessories are okay!”

Earlier today, we threw the question of “who still buys cassettes in 2020?” over to you, the NME readers, on social media — here’s what you had to say.

So with the news that cassette sales have doubled in the past year, we want to know: who still buys cassettes in 2020?…

Posted by NME on Monday, July 20, 2020

“Can understand the return to vinyl: sound quality, artwork etc, but not cassettes,” Richard Parkinson wrote in reply to our above Facebook post. “Sound deteriorates with each copy and tape breaks or gets chewed quite easily. Not for me.”

Jason Lewis, though, is a big cassette advocate: “I still buy them and have more than one tape player in my house,” he said. “The natural compression is great. I find them soothing. They aren’t as delicate as albums and CDs.”

Tara Valois made a valid point, though: “The people who are buying cassettes are the same people who have never had to use a pencil to pull 20 miles of jammed-up tape back in the cassette.”

Over on Twitter, the response to the grand return of the cassette has been mixed — with some for…

And some against…

But where would 2020 be without a bit of divisiveness?

 

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