If you’re from Generation X like myself and you ask, who buys cassette tapes today, you would be surprised to know that the sale of music recordings on cassette tape have been increasing since 2015. While we loved listening to our favorite bands on cassette back in the 80s, today most of us are not rushing to grab a tape to insert into a stereo or boombox. So who’s buying cassettes today? Why the resurgence of the compact cassette? And what secret did record companies exploit in order to create an entire generation of melophiles?
by Vin Ruiz – January 4, 2021
7 minute Read or listen to the Audio Narration on this page
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Which Listening Format was King in the 1970s?
Those of us from GenX remember listening to all our music in one of three ways:
- Vinyl records
- 8-track tapes
Growing up in the 1970s, going through elementary and middle school, it was clear that the vinyl record was the main listening format since music cassette technology hadn’t quite yet evolved to a superior quality listening experience. And listening to an 8-track tape at times was brutal. I hated when I was listening to my Black Sabbath 8-track tape “We Sold Our Soul For Rock ‘N’ Roll” and a song would start to fade out during the middle of a guitar solo. Then you heard that loud CHACHUNK, when the tape changed from track to track and then the rest of the song would fade back in. Didn’t you hate that? It was so annoying!
So I preferred records in the 70s. I remember when I was 8 years old buying my first vinyl record in 1976 with my allowance. It was the album “Dressed To Kill” by KISS. I was a diehard KISS fan in the 70s and I loved listening to my records. But all that changed in the 1980s.
Photo Credit: by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash
Enter The Boombox
As the desire for portable music increased, the advent of the boombox in the late 70s saw the popularity of music consumption on cassette rise. The 80s brought about better technology and sound quality to listen to cassette tapes and we saw boomboxes becoming bigger, heavier and louder. The ability to listen to your favorite music anywhere you wanted, and to play it loud enough for a large group of people at a party to enjoy, was amazing.
Back in 1981, when my older brother came home from the military for his Christmas leave, he bought me my very first boombox. (Thank you so much Henry. You’ll never know how much that gift meant to me!) Here’s an actual picture of it:
Photo Credit: by Mike Flamenco on Unsplash
The Soundtrack to Many Keg Parties
I loved this state-of-the-art piece of technology. It was because of this boombox, for me, vinyl was out and cassettes were in. I’ll never forget buying my first two cassettes ever, Ozzy Osbourne’s debut solo album “Blizzard Of Oz” and Iron Maiden’s sophomore effort “Killers” in 1981 at a local record store at Mountview Plaza in Naugatuck, CT.
Afterwards, I began to devour music and buy as many cassettes on a weekly basis as I could afford throughout the 1980s. These tapes provided the soundtrack to many, many, parties in high school and beyond. I would stuff all the available pockets in my denim or leather jacket with as many cassettes I could carry in order to have a variety of music to entertain our ritualistic drinking. Anyone at those parties could always count on me having music by Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden interspersed with selections by DIO, AC/DC, Scorpions, Van Halen, Deep Purple, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Krokus, Quiet Riot, Dokken, Motley Crue, Queensryche and Ratt amongst others.
One of my regrets is that I never audio taped any conversations from these parties. What a missed opportunity to be able to stroll down memory lane and hear the voices of high school friends who have since passed away. But at least I have the hazy memories of all the great times we had in the 80s!
Record Companies Secretly Exploited Us … (in my opinion)
Record companies in the 1970s initially despised the blank cassette tape because they felt it would ruin record sales since people started making copies of music albums by tape recording vinyl records. They were very vocal about their disdain for the cassette as a means of pirating music. But the appetite of the music consuming public wanted a portable means to listen to their favorite music on the go.
Once the record companies gave in, the prerecorded compact cassette dominated music sales over vinyl records in the 1980s. Here’s where my conspiracy theory comes into play. I believe that record companies realized the limitations of the cassette format and it would create an intense loyalty to music artists more than ever before and therefore increase sales. Since a cassette tape didn’t allow users to skip or easily fast-forward past songs, we essentially were “forced” to listen to ALL the songs on the album, even the ones that we initially didn’t care for too much but soon grew to appreciate and enjoy.
However, in my experience, this was a Win – Win – Win situation.
- We, the music fan, got to enjoy all the deep tracks that were not the hit radio singles, causing us to buy more music from that band.
- The artists then had fans that were enjoying more of the songs that they recorded on an album, in turn creating more fan loyalty.
- Record companies just sat back and reaped the profits by the billions.
Photo Credit: by Glen Carrie on Unsplash
The Walkman Revolutionized Music in the 80s
The 1980s also ushered in another invention that personalized the music experience … the Sony Walkman! Originally priced at $150.00 (that was a lot of money in 1980), the Walkman quickly invited knock-off brands for consumers at a cheaper price. Personally, neither my parents nor I could afford a Sony Walkman, but I was able to get a cheaper brand at about half the price and I fell in love with this cassette player. It gave me the ability to slide in any cassette I wanted, slip on headphones and get privately lost in the stereo musical landscape of my favorite bands.
Whenever my parents would take us kids on a road trip to visit family in New York, I kept myself easily entertained, during the 2-hour drive, by listening and learning lyrics to dozens of songs. I’ll never forget one trip to New York to visit my mom’s elderly Uncle in the Bronx. One tape in particular that I was listening to was Yngwie Malmsteen’s 1984 debut album called “Rising Force”. I loved listening to his style of Neo-Classical heavy metal with headphones where the music would seem to travel back and forth through my ears panning from left to right.
Photo Credit: “Sony Walkman: It’s Alive!” by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0
An Unforgettable Personal Memory
So after we arrived and had dinner, I invited my Uncle Hector, who was in his 70s at the time, to try out this cassette player with headphones and listen. My mom right away said, “Your Uncle is not going to like that loud, crazy music.” I quickly defended the album as a blend of classical guitar and orchestration mixed with rock music and insisted that he give it a chance just for one minute. I queued up the first track of Side B called “Icarus’ Dream Suite Op.4” and slipped the headphones on my Uncles’ ears and pressed play.
I could softly hear the opening chords of the song through the headphones and the melodic sound of the slow classical style guitar along with the keyboard orchestration. I’ll never forget that big smile appearing on his face and the look in his eyes as to what he was hearing. I stopped the song after a minute and he said, “Wow, that was beautiful.”
About a decade later my Uncle passed away, but I will always cherish that wonderful touching memory that was created by a simple cassette player and headphones.
The Resurgence of the Compact Cassette
2015 saw the largest increase in the sales of cassette tapes since 2003. Why? The National Audio Company, which is the largest of the few remaining cassette manufacturers in the United States, oversaw the mass production of a cassette tape called the “Awesome Mix Vol.1” from the 2014 film “Guardians of the Galaxy”, featuring the songs, “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Suede, “Moonage Daydream” by David Bowie, “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye & Tammie Terrell amongst others.
The popularity of the “Awesome Mix Vol.1” cassette was due to the main character played by Chris Pratt, who stars as Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord), the leader of the Guardians, playing songs throughout the movie from a cassette tape. Director James Gunn says, ‘One of the main story points in the movie is that Quill has this compilation tape (Awesome Mix #1) that he got from his mother before she died that she made for him. It was of songs that she loved, all songs from the 1970s, and that’s the only thing he has left of his mother and that’s the only thing he has left of his home on Earth. He uses that as a connection to his past.’
Since 2015, the sales of cassette tapes have continued to increase year over year with 2020 showing the sales of compact cassettes exceeding 2019 due to the release of pop music on cassette from artists such as 5 Seconds of Summer, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, The 1975 and Dua Lipa.
Who’s Buying Cassettes Today?
From personal experience, I know that the increase in sales of cassette tapes is not because of its superior sound quality, although some enjoy the warmer tone of vintage tapes that were recorded on analog. But it has to be due to the drive of pop culture, such as the influence of movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy”, as well as current pop artists own sentimentality by releasing new music on limited edition cassette.
The children of Gen Xers are now in their teens, 20s and early 30s. Perhaps you yourself have younger children that have been influenced by your music choices, knowingly or unknowingly. They may see the look on your face and hear the sound of your voice when you talk about growing up listening to your favorite music on records and cassettes.
There is definitely a psychological and sentimental connection to the things that brought us joy during the bloom of youth. And your children, nieces and nephews pick up on this vibe and they want a piece of it.
So don’t be surprised if one day you see one of your young ones walk into the room with headphones on their head, wired to a Walkman-like cassette player, with a smile on their face and bopping their head to whatever music is penetrating their heart, mind and soul. Just sit back, smile and enjoy that you’ve had a share in passing the torch to a new generation.
Peace, Love and Music my friends!
Vin Ruiz is a graduate of the Guitar Institute of Technology at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. Vin performed in several bands throughout the late 80s and early 90s as a professional guitarist, singer and songwriter. He transitioned to work as a high level Director of Operations in the advertising and marketing industry for nearly two decades. Vin also created and hosted his own internet show called “Name That Riff” for 2 seasons while concurrently working as the Creative Director and host for the “Keep It Metal Radio” program. Currently Vin is the creator and co-host of the internationally popular “Lipstick and Leather – Heavy Metal, Hard Rock, Glam podcast” which can be heard on all major podcast platforms.