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The dazzling return of the audio cassette, a fad or an underlying trend?

Published by SwapRecords on 26/05/2021

You've probably noticed new audio cassettes in department stores' racks. And no, you're not dreaming, the cassette is making a comeback, with rock and pop artists such as Polydans by Roosevelt, or When You See Yourself by the Kings of Leon who released their album in 2020 in cassette version, in addition to vinyl format. This is part of the merchandising products for labels and record companies, in addition to posters, clothes or other advertising products. This comeback of the cassette was actually caused by the mythical Sony TPS-L2 Walkman that made a memorable appearance in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014.

The physical and retro aspect seduce the new generations

The audio cassette has gone through a long cycle: first invented in the 30s, with a real launch in 1962 in its modern format thanks to the genius Lou Ottens, the cassette made its way into homes in the early 80s, with the release of the first Walkmans, and is now experiencing a rebound in the 2010s with Sony and Thompson who are back to selling cassette players. A retro side that seduces a lot in Japan and in the UK with sales exploding by more than 100% every year for the last 5 years. However, it is important to remember the order of magnitude: we are talking about a few hundred thousand cassettes sold against several million vinyl records per country - about 100,000 cassettes for 10 million vinyl records sold on the new market in 2020 in the United States for example - so a ratio of 1 to 100 on average. 

Audio cassettes, a portable and easy to use format

A niche phenomenon then, but in any case a physical medium that attracts the new generations, for its vintage and photogenic aspect - many visuals, accessories and clothes take up the tape - and in a form of differentiation from smartphones and streaming that zaps from artist to artist. The cassette allows to discover an album from the beginning to the end, and this in the transport, in the street, everywhere thanks to the portable Walkman. Clearly a fashion effect, around a film, a product and vintage. The desire to own an analog support of the artist you love, to hold a material object in your hands. And the pleasure to rewind the tape with your finger or a pen!

A portable and easy to use device

With more than a billion cassettes sold in the world since the 80s and the arrival of the Walkman, the heyday can certainly be explained by the feeling of freedom that the Walkman provides, its practicality and simplicity of use, but also the low price of a cassette. Indeed, even today, a new or second-hand cassette costs between 5 and $10, which is still the cheapest physical medium on the market. Moreover, compared to the vinyl record, which is more practical and takes up less space, the cassette has its own advantages. 

However, in the 2000s, the success of the Discman and then the iPod and MP3 players - which also offer a much better sound quality, the sound being the big weakness of the cassette - will cause the decline of the latter. The Walkman will finally become as iconic as the cassette, just like the turntable with the vinyl record.

The new Walkman recently released by Sony

In addition to its romantic and aesthetic appeal, and a little rebellious and retro for the younger ones since the release of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy and the series Stranger Things, the cassette is making a comeback because it is used by a legendary device: the Sony Walkman. It was the Sony TPS-L2 model that was a huge success, foreshadowing the CD and digital Walkman. The great hours of Sony. With more than 220 million copies of the Walkman sold in 40 years - the Walkman was released in 1979 - we can talk about a huge success! Weighing 400 grams at the time and supplied with a 45 gram headset, the TPS-L2 was an immediate success, after a complicated first month in Japan. And at that time, there were no social networks to massively broadcast a release.

Comeback cassette audio Sony TPS-L2.png

Sony definitively abandons the production of its Walkman in 2010, after having declined it in nearly 1,000 variations. In 2019, the Japanese brand decided to launch a digital anniversary version with the NW-A100TPS featuring a protective cover that takes up the codes of the TPS-L2. Digital Walkman indeed, which simulates an audio cassette on its screen saver, in addition to reading cassettes. Double function!

A merchandising product source of income for artists

For a few years now, independent labels as well as the major labels have been bringing the cassette back into fashion, by integrating it into vinyl record, CD and cassette box sets or by selling it separately as a merchandising product. Cheap, small to carry, that fits in one hand and that can be used as a decoration in a living room, the cassette is the ideal by-product for a new generation looking for a physical feeling in front of the full digital. So let's support this return of the cassette, and let's support artists!

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