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The cassette revival? Don’t believe the hype

Is the cassette really the chosen format for music hipsters or is the hype around an outmoded format just more record industry marketing? Our man Eamonn Forde adjudicates…

Given that the record industry was in free fall between 2000 and 2014, you can’t fault it for wanting to accentuate the positives whenever and wherever it can. So in the wake of “the vinyl revival” it is now time to make way for “the cassette revival”.

In an age of streaming where the consumer has a nebulous relationship with music that has been reduced to a string of zeros and ones on their laptops and phones, here is proof that the physical music object has taken on a new totemic power.

The act of buying a cassette – that most user-unfriendly of music formats – is now presented as nothing less than a consumer uprising. The tangible has trumped the digital.

Except, well, that’s hokum.

If the “rise” of cassettes is a triumph of anything it is a triumph of marketing. They are designed to appeal to hardcore fans, themselves a dwindling demographic, who want to snap up everything associated with a favourite act where this most moribund of formats actually becomes a form of merchandise. In that sense cassettes are no different to a Taylor Swift T-shirt or an iPhone case with the faces of BTS on it.

No artist is going to fatten up their retirement fund from selling cassettes

Crucially, because they are audio formats, they also count towards the top 40, helping to jet-power an album to the higher echelons of the charts in its crucial opening week at a time when streams often take weeks to gather sufficient head of steam to give the album a strong placing.

Yet what is not talked about in the middle of these jubilations about “the return of the cassette” is that they are done in small runs where the unit costs are high and the profit margins are slim. No artist is going to fatten up their retirement fund from selling cassettes.

Context is everything. Cassette sales are up 112%, according to the BPI and the Official Charts Company. That sounds mightily impressive – until you realise that they make up just 0.2% of all album sales in the UK. In total, 36,000 cassettes were sold in the UK in the first half of this year and a handful of acts dominate.

Billie Eilish alone accounted for 4,000 of those sales. The sheen is knocked off this somewhat when you note that 7,000 homes in the UK still have black and white TVs.

Be wary of the claims about this cassette renaissance. It’s like Ikea getting excited about the return of lino.