Are music cassettes making a comeback?

Music cassettes offer nostalgia to many, but are the 'new and cute' thing for the younger generation. Are they worth investing in?

Music cassettes colourful on a plain background
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Anyone old enough to remember using a pencil to wind the magnetic film back into a chewed-up cassette tape may well wonder why anyone would want to dabble with such antiquated technology. You had to fast forward to get to the song you wanted, usually overshooting the start, and the sound quality had nothing on today’s digital offerings. But it’s precisely the sound, often described as “warm”, that appeals to older collectors, as well as a new generation for whom pencils and recorded music hold no connection. “Old guys are buying for their memories. Young people are buying to try. They think it’s trendy,” Stephen Ho, a collector from Hong Kong, tells Larry Ryan in The Guardian

East Asia has experienced much of the boom in sales. Record shops in Tokyo have been expanding their cassette sections, “signalling a resurgence of compact analogue recording media”, says Megumi Kito on Nikkei Asia. Last September, Tower Records in the Shibuya district multiplied its stock of old and new tapes by a factor of six as sales have continued to grow in recent years.

“Cassettes seem to come across to the younger generation as ‘new and cute’ things,” Ko Takeda, who heads the cassette section, tells the paper. 

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Tapes are also cheaper to manufacture than vinyl LPs which is reflected in retail prices, says Matthew Kronsberg in Bloomberg Businessweek. A new vinyl record can cost $35 in the US, a tape a mere $10, but the latter still provides “a similar analogue experience”. “It may be lower fidelity, but it’s also more playful and more portable,” he says. TV series Stranger Things and the blockbuster superhero film Guardians of the Galaxy, both with their depictions of life in the 1980s, have also helped to make the decade cool. 

Crucially, cassettes are also affordable to the youngest of new collectors. That’s not lost on pop superstar Taylor Swift, who counts many of them among her fans. Her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, sold 1.64 million physical units in its first week of release in April, of which 21,500 were cassettes, according to music magazine Billboard. That’s a long way behind the 859,000 LPs that were sold, to be sure, but not bad for a format that until recently had been consigned to the attic of history. 

Selling physical recordings is also a smart business move made by young musicians, who also include Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar and Dua Lipa. The per-click royalties musicians earn from streaming platforms such as Spotify are “infinitesimal” compared with the “far greater revenues that artists can earn from physical products”, as Ben Sisario points out in The New York Times

In fact, such has been the take-up that new iterations of the 1980s Walkman are coming to market so that younger buyers will have something to play them on. Examples include the We Are Rewind WE-001 and the FiiO CP13. Some things really were better in the 1980s.

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Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

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