Here’s why cassette tape sales doubled during the pandemic

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Described by some as “Europe’s biggest tech show,” the Berlin Radio Show has long been famous for showcasing the next big thing in consumer electronics. In 1963, it was the compact audio cassette, introduced at the time by its creator, the late Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, who died in early March.

During Ottens’ lifetime, cassettes came to redefine listening habits, which until then had been limited to the much bulkier vinyl record. Car radios and the iconic Sony Walkman suddenly made individual listening experiences possible outside the home. The re-recordable nature of the format, meanwhile, has helped music fans collect and circulate their own mixtapes. At its peak in 1989, the cassette was moving 83 million units a year in the UK alone.

Although having been replaced in functionality first by the compact disc (CD) and then the digital file (MP3 and MP4), the audio cassette retains a special place in the history of audio technology, with mixtapes a precursor. playlists, and the Walkman, the precursor to the iPod.

And, while viewed as aesthetically and materially inferior to the vinyl record that came before it, the audio cassette is actually experiencing some kind of resurgence – partly for sentimental reasons, but also because, with the canceled concerts, it’s a smart way for small artists to monetize their work.

Press rewind

Amid a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the music industry, 2020 could rightly be called the year of the tape. According to figures from the UK phonographic industry, 155,542 cassettes were sold in the UK last year, the highest figure since 2003 and a 94.7% increase over 2019 sales. Apparently at the Improvised, global pop icons such as Lady Gaga, 1975 and Dua Lipa have started releasing their new releases on tape – and they are selling.

For those of us who are old enough to remember cassette tape as a common format for musical consumption, their resurgence is somewhat puzzling. After all, even in their prime, tapes still sucked a bit.

They lacked the aesthetic and romance of vinyl LP and its gatefold cover art. Subsequently, they lacked the usability, brilliance, and sonic fidelity of CD. And there isn’t a living music fan over 35 who doesn’t have a horror story to tell about a favorite album or mixtape chewed up by a malicious car stereo or portable boombox.

The boombox may now appear in retro fashion - but that won't stop it from chewing on the occasional duct tape.
Credit: Dave Weatherall