Cassette tapes back in fashion? Are you on drugs?
They sprayed out of the player and made a mess on the floor of your car while you searched for a pencil to spool it back on. They were hardly an audiophile’s dream to begin with and when they wore out things got slurry and wobbly.
Sure, they were the original home of the mix tape which spawned a thousand romances but no one would bother now though, surely.
Well Sean Bohman of the California label Burger Records estimates he and his partner Lee Rickard have sold more than 500,000 cassette tapes in the past ten years, plenty of them in Australia.
And the reason is simple: “They are cheap to make, they are quick to make, they fit in your pocket and they are fun to collect,” Bohrman said. “And you can listen to them.”
Like an after effect of the much-discussed return of vinyl, which increase sales every year (from a low, verge-of-extinction base in the 1990s admittedly) while CDs and downloads continue to drop, what seemed a silly fad a year ago is becoming a solid, cassettes-are-back trend.
Nate Nott, co-owner of Polyester Records in Fitzroy, puts it down to the appeal of a physical format for music buyers not enamoured of digital music, coupled with a direct appeal for artists who can make tapes for about $2 and sell them for under $10.
“With cassettes, the turnaround times are so quick and the cost so much lower so it means an artist, and quite often a side project for an artist, can make an album or EP that is perhaps taking more risks than what they normally do and get it out in the world a lot quicker and with far less pressure,” said Nott.
Although Burger Records put out 200 separate cassette releases in 2016, and 300 the year before, no one is pretending this is anything more than a niche in Australia, where there are several cassette-focused labels such as Nice Music and Hobbies Galore.
ARIA, the industry body which collates sales for the various charts, doesn’t even count cassettes as a separate item, their sales being too low to be reported officially.
However, no one is ignoring the fact it’s selling, even if it’s a dozen or so copies a week in some stores, to young and not so young buyers.
“They're a good impulse buy for fans of local bands,” said Chris Berkley who is both a manager of several young acts and a retailer with Sydney’s Red Eye Records.
“But also for those looking to furnish their ‘completists' collection with every format in the case of a label like Sub Pop, who've been reissuing Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney albums on tape.”
Shannon Logan, owner of Jet Black Cat Music store in Brisbane’s West End is in no doubt that “there is a resurgence for sure, and growing”, the evidence at merchandise desks at shows from Melbourne to Fullerton California, home of Burger Records.
“They love these bands and … for five bucks they can buy a tape,” Burger’s Bohrman. “Some kids don’t have 20 bucks to spend on an LP; it’s nice to have something cheap on the table.”
So, if vinyl is re-established and cassettes are back, what next, the flexidisc?
“At a time when a vintage Nokia burner phone is this year's hot ticket item,” Berkley said. “Never say never.”
Golden years of cassette – here’s an entirely possible C90 mix tape from 1986
Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
Harold Faltermeyer – Axel F
Simple Minds – The American
Run D.M.C. - Walk This Way
Hoodoo Gurus – I Want You Back
Tom Jones – It’s Not Unusual
Bon Jovi – You Give Love A Bad Name
Blondie – Hanging On The Telephone
The Church – Tantalized
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – Perfect Skin
R.E.M. – So. Central Rain
Joni Mitchell – River
Smiths – Back To The Old House
Talking Heads – I Zimbra
Severed Heads – Dead Eyes Opened
Grandmaster Flash – White Lines
Madonna – Into The Groove
Aretha Franklin – Think
INXS – Don’t Change
Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run
Heart – Barracuda
The Birthday Party – Release The Bats
Screaming Tribesmen – Date With A Vampyre
Paul Kelly – Before Too Long
Billy Bragg – Levi Stubbs’ Tears
Prince – For You