As vinyl sales continue to surge upwards — its 11th straight year of double-digit growth and pacing at 52 per cent over last year — fans of another format are wondering if they can’t get a piece of this retro action.
Fans of the humble cassette, that analogue relic of the Walkman era, keep romanticizing (fetishizing is a better word) an old technology that’s seen its day. If vinyl can’t make a comeback, they say, why can’t the cassette?
Let me count the ways.
Have you tried to buy a new cassette player recently? How many people can find a working cassette player around the house? Where does one go to buy blank cassettes today? And when it comes to vehicles, the last car to come with a factory cassette player was the 2010 Lexus SC 430.
But these folks are certainly doing their best to bring back this format, which was invented by Phillips back in 1963.
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Inspired by Record Store Day, we now have the sixth annual Cassette Store Day with this year’s edition — a worldwide event, they say — coming up in October. Maybe you’ve seen stories about how old cassette manufacturing plants are working overtime to meet the demand. Perhaps there’s a hipster in your neighbourhood who eschews all things digital and insists the only way to listen to music is on an old-school mixtape they made themselves.
All these people would have us believe that the Second Coming of the Cassette is upon us. “Sales in Canada are up a whopping 65 per cent over last year!” they exclaim. “That’s more than even vinyl!”
True, but let’s look at the actual hard sales numbers.
According to Nielsen Canada, 5,100 pre-recorded cassettes have been sold across Canada in all of 2018. Compare that to 544,000 new vinyl records (an amount that doesn’t factor in sales at used record stores, collectable vinyl purchased online or through record shows) and 4.6 million compact discs.
Five thousand cassettes sold in a nation of 35 million does not a resurrection make. Ratios are much the same in other nations like the US, the UK, and Germany.
The 21st century market seems confined to Luddite hipsters, artists who are issuing cassettes as tchotchkes/collector’s items, and — wait for it — prisoners.
America is the world’s largest jailer, with a prison population of 2.3 million. That’s enough for convicts to be a viable standalone music market. CDs are outlawed in prisons because they can be shattered and turned into shanks. MP3 players are allowed, but if you don’t have Internet access to download files, they’re not very useful. Streaming? Maybe on the library computers, but nothing more. Vinyl? Not a chance. Cassettes are the only option.
But prisoners don’t have access to just any cassette. They have to rely on the libraries of companies like Fortress Audio and Duplication.ca who make special prison-issue cassettes. The shells are transparent (to prevent smuggling anything inside) and without any screws (too easily weaponized) and made of a material not easily turned into a shank.
Got someone on the inside? Ask them about services like Music 4 Inmates and Music By Mail, companies that specialize in providing music to those behind bars. Without this, er, captive market, a huge chunk of the cassette industry wouldn’t exist.
To be fair, cassettes are also still being widely used in places with hot and/or dusty climates that might otherwise gum up CD players and other more complicated electronics. Places like Africa, India and Indonesia remain big markets for cassettes although, like the rest of the world, those regions are adopting streaming at a rapid rate, even if it means listening over basic flip phones.
The real anomaly is Japan, where the cassette continues to be used by a surprising number of people, despite the fact that Sony, the maker of the Walkman, the device that briefly helped make pre-recorded cassettes the biggest-selling format on the planet, discontinued domestic production in 2010. (Cassette Walkmans are still made in China for sale in emerging markets.) Despite its reputation as a high-tech society, there are many conservative types who have yet to let go of the old ways. Plenty of Japanese convenience stores will happily sell you package of blank tapes. Some business are still hanging on to their fax machines, too.
Those of us who lived through the cassette remember its cursed foibles. The lousy sound. The tape jams. The J-cases — the formal name for a cassette case — with hinges that snapped if you just looked at them wrong. Piles of melted plastic on the dashboard. I hold cassettes to be hateful things, worthy of the trash bin of history just like the eight-track, the 78 RPM record and the wax cylinder.
Don’t believe the hype. Move on, people.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.