Music cassette revival is in full rewind mode
At the Art Gallery of Ontario, the success of Cyndi Lauper hour after hour plays on a boom box. The installation is called Mixtapespart of the multimedia I Am Here exhibition that considers music and amateur films as vehicles for personal reflection. “I have a suitcase of memories,” Lauper sings, “that I almost left behind.”
the Mixtapes component is the creation of Glynnis Grant-Henderson, a Toronto music enthusiast who has contributed a dozen tapes of dance music – from ragtime hero Scott Joplin to wild thing garage rockers the Troggs to rapper Doja Cat. There’s also a collection of tapes and diary entries that document his 2018 road trip to small record stores across Canada.
Do you remember the tapes? In 1983, the year hour after hour was released, cassette tapes overtook vinyl as the most popular music format, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. More manageable and portable than vinyl, cassettes can be played while driving or, with a Sony Walkman, while walking. In addition, people could easily record music on cassette tapes themselves. By the end of the decade, worldwide annual sales reached 83 million.
Then, thanks to the advent of the compact disc (and, later, digital downloads and streaming services), cassettes went through a long period of decline that led to their irrelevance as a delivery system for music.
Until now. Although the overall numbers are quite low from their peak in 1989, sales of music cassettes in the United States have seen double-digit increases in recent years. Things are no different in the UK, where sales doubled from 2019 to 2020according to UK Phonographic Industry figures.
So hipsters have a new niche musical toy. But why is the rewind button pressed now?
To explain the cassette renaissance, it’s tempting to look to some of the same factors that are driving the current resurgence in vinyl sales: consumers seeking a tactile relationship with their music; a preference for analog over digital; the grip of nostalgia. But the sound quality of cassettes, with their tape hiss, is inferior to that of vinyl. The work is on a much smaller scale. And just try to find high-end equipment to play things these days.
“None of our current vendors carry cassette decks anymore,” said Danu Mandlsohn, Toronto Bay Bloor Radio’s high-end audio store manager. “The last time we sold them was in the early 2000s.”
The quick answer as to the cause of the cassette mini-boom: tapes are cheaper.
“We can supply 100 tapes at $3 to $5 per tape,” said George Frehner, president and owner of Analogue Media Technologies (aka Duplication.ca), a Toronto media and printing plant. “The cost of pressing a vinyl record would start at around $20.”
Result, Billie Eilish’s latest album, happier than eversells for $19 on cassette on Amazon.ca, compared to $39.99 for the vinyl version.
Another factor favoring tape over disk is lead time for manufacturers. Vinyl products can typically take 22 to 25 weeks to ship, according to Frehner, which doesn’t make vinyl records but negotiates deals with pressing factories for its customers. Cassette orders can usually be fulfilled within a month.
The rise in cassette sales is also due to increased demand from major music labels. Ten years ago it was underground bands and chamber musicians who most often released tape recordings; nowadays, the superstars are also going analog.
“Today we shipped 8,000 cassettes of a Bjork album and 2,000 tapes of Mac Miller,” Frehner said. “There’s no sign of it stopping – it’s only getting bigger.”
As for the nostalgia driving today’s analog rise, nowhere is that sentimentality stronger than when attached to the beloved cassette subgenre, the mixtape. Find an old one in a box and you’re immediately transported to a bygone era in your life – likely involving unfortunate hairstyle choices – before you even stick it in a game and press play.
“Songs are listed in your own handwriting,” said Mixtapes designer Grant-Henderson. “It’s very tangible and it’s definitely a lot more romantic than a Spotify playlist.”
Grant-Henderson, 32, was born when the tape was just beginning to lose popularity. She remembers making mixtapes with her sisters as a child, running to the tape recorder to hit the record button every time a great song played on the radio. The cases were decorated with glitter and adorned with nail polish doodles.
“It’s one of our family’s fondest memories,” she said.
It’s not uncommon to present pop culture as a mirror of one’s emotional state. Grant-Henderson thinks the mixtape is more resonant than creating a playlist on a streaming platform, because you’re actually listening to the song as you put it on tape, rather than dragging and drop a track on a laptop screen. “You are physically with it,” says the text on the AGO exhibit panel. “There’s no way to avoid the fact that you feel what you feel listening to this song and recording on the tape deck.”
the Mixtapes project started a few years ago with something Grant-Henderson called The Mixtape Manifestoa collection of seven songs of music by Elton John – Philadelphia Liberty! – and others. An accompanying zine of short stories worked as a form of music therapy for her, while serving as a love letter in tape format.
Her 2018 odyssey took her to Oosik Records of Batchawana Bay, Ontario (self-proclaimed the smallest record store in the world) and beyond, to Winnipeg’s Into the Music, Saskatoon’s Vinyl Exchange, Neptune Records of Vancouver and Victoria’s Vinyl Envy. A copy of The Mixtape Manifesto was dropped on the counter of every store she visited, free to anyone who wanted it.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.
Driving a ramshackle 2002 Honda Civic, she stopped at 25 stores in total. Some of them have since ceased operations. And six months after the trip, the Civic was destroyed in an accident. “He achieved his goal,” Grant-Henderson said of the car.
The tapes? They survived to play another day.
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