The Real Cassette Comeback
There are many articles out there, talking of the "Cassette Comeback"
Most articles are written by people who either have no love of the format, are too young to have that insight or are just writing using common stereotypes.
Most of these articles fall in to one of three categories:
- Pre-recorded cassette duplication companies wanting promotion.
- Pre-recorded cassette retailers wanting promotion.
- People who did not have cassettes in the heyday wondering what numbers 1&2 are about and experimenting with new cassette equipment and concluding it's poor and they don't understand why they're making a "comeback"
Let's make something clear. Cassettes are selling more than they have done for years, but that doesn't mean they're anywhere near the level they were to make an actual impact on the music consuming public.
It's good though that people are taking an interest again.
Pre-recorded cassettes from big artists are showing there is "life" in the format.
Then we have up and coming artists who use the medium as a nice little souvenir for their fans to purchase, be it online or from a case at the front of the stage. The format is novel, allows for creativity with the cassettes and packaging and is relatively cheap to produce and to buy...and they always sell out fast!
And these little audio "trinkets" are going up in value all the time...I guess it's a novelty, but the fact that they can listen to this music forever, no need for a PC or for the internet and that they're small enough to enjoy on the move, is something new for a generation used to purely digital files and streaming. And they look cool 😎
So, people often ask me: "Cassettes? Why?"
- Nostalgia. Things that were magic when you were young, always remain magic. Smell is the most nostalgic of all senses and many cassettes have their own distinctive aroma. A pure chrome, smells like crayons. Some Type 2 smell "sharp". Sometimes you crack one open that has been sealed for decades, that you used to use in your youth, and you're transported back...Many of us traded them with friends. Many of us used to load our computer games off them. Finger over the pause button as we recorded the charts off the radio. Recording in darkness late night radio shows. The joy of finding some good cassettes in a bargain bin. Hunting down the best value when we went shopping. The car journeys where we'd prepared a special mixtape. The holidays where we prepared and carefully selected which cassettes we were taking, where a book and our walkman were our best friends. These times now look great with "rose tinted spectacles" on, and cassettes were a big part of it.
- The looks. No other media format has so many different models and variations. They are little pieces of industrial art. Why do you think so many items feature cassettes on them? Because they look great and will always be cool, with or without their intricately designed wrappers. An Mp3 only excites the sense of hearing. A Cassette excites, hearing, sight, touch and sometimes smell...that's 4 senses.
- The Mixtape. Iconic. So many stories from users. You have to work at a mixtape. A playlist? Sure, picking the right songs is important, but then taking the time to select the right cassette, taking the time to record it and record it well, then creating a J-Card or hand write it takes time. You have to earn a good mixtape. It makes it more satisfying. It shows the person you're giving it to that you care enough to spend the time on it. I am a member of communities where people swap these. Where else can you find strangers spending hours to create something for another stranger, that they know they'll like, just because it gives joy from both sides? This is the balance to all the "fake news" and "toxic this and that" that is the downside of social media and online communities. Cassettes are bringing fans together. I make mixtapes with my kids. It's a great way to introduce them to new music and to spend some quality time together. They will treasure those when I'm no longer here. They won't treasure a playlist...
- Longevity. You can record 40 year old cassettes and they still sound like new. It was thought that they would all deteriorate over a few years. They didn't. Store them like something you care about and they will outlive you. There's a reason magnetic tape is still the major archive data storage medium. How many HDDs / SD cards will die in a 40 year period? Mine seem to last maybe 24 months, then done, everything on it is gone forever. You throw them away, buy again. Buy the next smartphone after your current one is remotely killed by constant "updates". Stream and pay forever but never actually have a copy of the music, if you suddenly decide you don't want to pay for a subscription any more. Cassettes are not what the music industry wants. They last too long, not enough re-buys. Show me someone who says "They got chewed up", I'll show you someone who never cleaned their cassette decks. A tape deck is a machine with moving parts, like a car. You have your car serviced, so service your cassette deck. It's not hard. You clean the heads and capstans with a Q-Tip and some pure alcohol every week (takes 5 mins) and the pinch rollers with some rubber cleaner and they don't get chewed up. Ever.
- The sound. If you buy the cheapest steak, cook it badly, and eat it off a dirty plate, you can't say all steak tastes bad. "shit in = shit out" 😃 This is back to the "earning" a good recording. Nothing worthwhile is easy. If you opened a box of cereal and a Rolex watch fell out, would you treasure it, as it came so easy? No. If you worked hard, saved and sacrificed, then that watch would mean something when it's on your wrist. Same with a cassette recording. Pick a good source, have a good, well maintained deck, and learn how to calibrate it for a good cassette and you will get a wonderful recording that many wouldn't be able to tell from the source. Buy a modern deck, made as cheaply as possible in China, slap a blank you bought from Wish for $1 in it and yeah, it'll sound terrible. Nothing in life is 100% perfect, there are bad race cars, bad golf clubs, bad anything, but you don't judge the entire hobby based on the lowest common denominator.
Cassettes are little industrial works of art that are the last consumer, analogue, recording format. Analogue, you know, like your ears. When treated correctly they sound warm and wonderful, look fantastic and will keep on working longer than you, if you treat them well.
It's in our DNA to be hunter / gatherers. We like physical things and just remember what was new, will become ordinary, will become boring...then maybe live again. People will look for something else, a new novelty. The resurgence in vinyl attests to this.
However cassettes will not go the same way as vinyl without one thing, new, high quality cassette decks. Until then, it will be a niche hobby for enthusiasts willing to put the time and money into maintaining their vintage decks and young people who are intrigued by this iconic music format. We're happy with that. Nothing worthwhile is easy. Nothing common and cheap is ever treasured. We're happy if it doesn't "comeback" as right now, it's a very special club to be a part of...look at all the people who love and maintain classic cars, even if modern ones are faster and easier to maintain.
Like John Lennon said "Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted." We waste our time storing music in a way that would take seconds with digital technology, but we don't care, as we enjoy it.
Hobbies don't have to make sense. The best reason to have a hobby is because it gives you joy, and joy is a commodity that's getting increasingly hard to find.
So if you have memories of cassettes and are still wondering why anyone would still be using them, I hope this article helped a bit. The best way to really know is to buy a decent vintage deck (doesn't have to be expensive at the start, just one that's been cared for and works well) some cassettes you remember, and make yourself a mixtape...if it unlocks a dormant part of your brain and makes you suddenly feel things you haven't for a while, please do come and join us 😉