The cas­sette re­vival un­rav­eled.

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - BY KEN POHLMANN THE AU­THOR Ken Pohlmann is an elec­tri­cal engi­neer spe­cial­iz­ing in au­dio top­ics as a con­sul­tant and writer. He is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami, and his au­thored books in­clude Prin­ci­ples of Dig­i­tal Au­dio and the Mas­ter Han

You might have seen the click­bait head­lines: “CAS­SETTES JOIN VINYL IN DRA­MATIC COME­BACK.” Don’t be­lieve the hype. It just ain’t hap­pen­ing.

If you’re of a cer­tain age, you know well the rise and fall of cas­settes. The for­mat was de­vel­oped by Philips in 1962 as a low-fi me­dia. Cas­settes of­fered two things that LPS did not: they were por­ta­ble and they were record­able. Play­ers ap­peared in cars (play­back qual­ity was iffy, but still bet­ter than 8-tracks) and in Walk­mans and boom­boxes. The for­mat’s record­abil­ity also spawned the home-brew mix­tape, a bonafide cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. Much like the di­nosaurs, it seemed that cas­settes would rule the earth for­ever.

Then a gi­ant as­ter­oid named CD crashed into the earth, and cas­settes died off. It’s true that they lin­gered on for a while, mainly as talk­ing books, and ac­tu­ally sold over 8 mil­lion units as re­cently as 2004. But cas­sette play­ers slowly va­cated car dash­boards, and the ipod and MP3 de­liv­ered the coupe de grâce. Cas­settes dis­ap­peared en­tirely—al­most.

Seem­ingly out of nowhere, U.S. cas­sette al­bum sales spiked up a whop­ping 35 per­cent from 2016 to 2017. That’s dra­matic, right? Any num­ber of news out­lets touted how cas­settes were join­ing

vinyl’s glo­ri­ous as­cen­dancy. Well, the per­cent­age fig­ure makes sales seem big­ger than they re­ally are. In terms of ac­tual units, as tab­u­lated by Nielsen Mu­sic, 174,000 cas­settes were sold in 2017, com­pared with 129,000 in 2016. That amounts to about 0.1 per­cent of the al­bum mar­ket. There is no “come­back.” Cas­sette sales are a round­ing er­ror.

Fur­ther­more, the sup­posed res­ur­rec­tion of the cas­sette can be at­trib­uted to a sin­gle gim­mick, and one that is eas­ily un­der­stood. You may re­call that the Guardians of the Gal­axy movies used cas­sette play­back as a mi­nor plot de­vice. The writ­ers chose it be­cause it is retro and funky, and wanted to tie the movie in with mu­sic from the pe­riod. They also chose it be­cause, al­though LPS are also retro and funky, turnta­bles just don’t work as well in outer space (the whole grav­ity thing). Be­sides, the whole LP retro and funky thing has been over­done.

Any­way, it is be­cause of the movie and its se­quel that cas­settes are see­ing a sales blip. You put any­thing in a movie and it will cause a blip. Be­cause of Guardians of the Gal­axy, there is prob­a­bly also a blip in the num­ber of peo­ple who think rac­coons make good pets. (They do not, un­less they are com­puter gen­er­ated.) So, hav­ing cas­settes in the movie and play­ing clas­sic tunes pre­dictably made some peo­ple want to buy cas­settes play­ing the same tunes. The in­crease in sales is due to what the in­dus­try calls an “event.”

Ergo, the best-sell­ing cas­sette ti­tle in 2017 was Guardians of the Gal­axy, Vol. 2: Awe­some Mix Vol. 2 (19,000 copies). The num­ber two best-seller was Guardians of the Gal­axy: Awe­some Mix Vol. 1 (15,000 copies). And, the num­ber three best-seller— you guessed it— was Guardians of the Gal­axy: Cos­mic Mix Vol. 1 (5,000 copies).

So, 22 per­cent of cas­sette al­bum sales were gen­er­ated by the movie. Rid­ing that tail­wind, some other ti­tles did ring a few cash reg­is­ters, though sales were mod­est. Perus­ing the cas­sette best-seller list, you’ll find the sound­track from the nos­tal­gia-heavy Net­flix show Stranger Things (3,000); Eminem’s The Eminem Show (3,000); The Hamil­ton Mix­tape (3,000); and Prince’s Pur­ple

Rain (2,000). More proof that the blip is more trend than sub­stance: a hu­mon­gous 20 per­cent of cas­sette sales were from the cloth­ing chain Ur­ban Out­fit­ters, which also sells a Hello Kitty in­stant film cam­era.

So, are cas­settes mak­ing a come­back? No, they are not. Once the Guardians bump is gone, the for­mat will re­turn to its slum­ber as a sub, sub, sub­cul­ture thing. At least un­til another “event” comes along.

[Edi­tor’s Note: Guardians of the Gal­axy, Vol. 2: Awe­some Mix Vol. 2 might sound awk­ward, but it is cor­rect. The se­quel movie was called Guardians of the Gal­axy, Vol. 2.]

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