The naysayers will tell you that cassettes are dead. That there is no cassette revival. That they are tiny, easily perishable, disposable pieces of rubbish that we have no convenient way of playing anymore.
They’re absolutely right, of course. Listening to a cassette in 2024 seems an inherently insane way of consuming music. Even throwing aside the total impracticalities of the format for a second, how exactly are you going to play your cassette? On your MacBook Pro?
And yet. A small but committed spool of fans across the UK are still buying those tiny little plastic blocks. The format has sold more than 100,000 copies in each of the last six years, though it saw a slight dip in 2023. But this isn’t to say that cassettes are BACK. They still account for less than 1% of the market, and have most likely peaked in popularity once again.
What’s far more interesting about this mini cassette revival are the charts. You see, we now have separate charts for each format of music that we consume. There are streaming charts. There are CD charts. There are vinyl charts. And there are cassette charts.
Each of their end-of-year charts kinda makes sense when you dig a little deeper into them. The vinyl chart is full of classic albums, is Dad Rock-oriented, and features plenty of Taylor Swift. The CD chart is topped by Take That (hello, Sainsbury’s shoppers!), is Now compilation-heavy, and features plenty of Taylor Swift. The most-streamed songs are heavily weighted towards current artists, were all released this year, and feature plenty of Taylor Swift.
But the cassette charts. Oh, the cassette charts. They are another beast entirely. Sleep Token, an anonymous alt-metal group who perform in masks and don’t give interviews, released the 7th best-selling cassette of 2023. Kylie Minogue was #3, middling indie rockers Inhaler came in at #4. Pop-punk albums from Busted, McFly and Fall Out Boy all broke the top 20. And craziest of all, there is barely a sniff of Swift.
If vinyl dads, CD mums and their streaming sons are the driving force behind the other charts, who in flaming hell is driving the sales of cassettes? Well, it turns out that just like the charts themselves, the reasons fans have for buying a cassette don’t follow a uniform logic.
“I love to collect music and had the opportunity to buy the album in a relatively unique format for this day and age. It’s still sealed, I don’t plan on ever playing it, but it’s a great addition to my collection,” says one Sleep Token fan. Their album ‘Take Me Back to Eden’ was one of the top-selling cassettes in the UK last year, and it came in a more unique format than most: 12 separate tapes, each with their own collectible playing card.
For others, buying a Sleep Token cassette was more about completionism than collectability: “I want to continue to have all variants of their physical music, so I needed to have all the cassettes too.” Note the operative word there: need.
But if there was one answer popping up more often than anything else, it was that old rose-tinted chestnut again: nostalgia. “I bought it on cassette because I love cassettes, they were my childhood format,” explains Sleep Token fan Rob. “Yeah they don’t sound the best and are easily damaged, but they bring a tactileness like you get with a vinyl, which a lot of people appreciate.”
Emily, meanwhile, enjoys the spool-fuelled joy of being forced to play a cassette in its entirety: “I have been starting to get back into cassettes. I like the no choice but to listen to it from start to finish; kind of like a vinyl but portable.”
Nostalgia may go some way to explaining the cassette-buying rationale for those of a certain age – but what about younger fans? Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘GUTS’ and Lana Del Rey’s ‘Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd’ were two of the best-selling cassettes in the UK last year. I’m willing to bet good money that a decent proportion of their fans were not taping John Peel’s Radio 1 show to play on their boombox in the 80s. But there’s clearly something about the whole cassette schtick that appeals to people.
“I love Lana’s music and love listening to and collecting cassettes in general,” one Lana fan tells me. “For an album like Ocean Blvd, especially, where the songs flow together so well, I like listening on cassette or vinyl rather than streaming.”
“For me I’ve always loved vintage outlets of music or just things in general like TV, so I think there’s been a big resurgence in retro memorabilia,” says another. “I have a Walkman and love to listen to Ocean Blvd that way over streaming.”
Olivia Rodrigo fans seem to have a whole bunch of other reasons for buying tapes: to complete their collection, to prove their fandom and – yes – as a piece of nostalgia. You also can’t ignore the cost. ‘GUTS’ on cassette is priced at £7.99, compared to £25.99 for the vinyl version. When a set of three Olivia Rodrigo stickers (and as far as I can tell, they are literally just stickers) is retailing for fifteen quid, a cassette suddenly seems like a much more logical and affordable way of buying some merch from your favourite artist.
What’s clear is that there’s no convenient way of explaining this mini cassette revival. The people buying cassettes in 2024 are a wildly diverse bunch: everyone from 80s nostalgists to Gen Z Olivia Rodrigo fans. And their reasons for buying cassettes are every bit as diverse.
What this diversity seems to do is create a mish-mash of disparate styles and sounds in the charts. It means the cassette charts manage to represent the UK’s kaleidoscopic/batshit crazy music tastes better than any other. There’s Gen Z pop. There’s indie. There’s metal. There are nostalgia acts. There’s even bloody pop-punk.
So although cassettes may not be back back, there’s clearly still enough about these strange little plastic blocks to interest people of all generations. Now, where’s my old Walkman hiding?
Words: Nick Harland