Why more Australians are expected to press ‘Rewind’ on cassettes
The jury’s still out on how strong the cassette revival is in Australia.
Music retailers say that sales are up but at a slower rate than when the vinyl renaissance began.
But it is expected to pick up speed as more superstar acts like Taylor Swift, Kylie Minogue AC/DC, Jack White and Metallica put their names to cassettes.
Minogue’s Golden was the biggest selling cassette in the UK last year.
Matt Huddy, manager of Red Eye Records in Sydney, cites a number of reasons for the appeal.
“There’s a nostalgia thing to it, obviously, young kids find them cool and a bit of an oddity.
“The price is cheaper than an LP, sometimes they come with a digital download code which I think helps sell them.”
Huddy notes that when an act puts out a release on vinyl, CD and cassette, hardcore fans buy all three.
Many small underground acts in Australia release on the format because they’re cheap to make and distribute.
Stella Donnelly issued her debut EP Thrush Metal on tape.
“It’s all about bringing back that vintage, slow listening kind of thing,” she told ABC-TV’s 7.30.
“Vinyl is very expensive, so for a first EP that would come at a massive cost, and unless you have a big label backing you it’s not feasible.
“So I think that’s why a lot of people put it out on tape. I think it’s a collector’s thing. It’s that feeling of having something tangible.
“People aren’t listening to CDs as much anyway.”
CD album unit sales fell 29.5% to 5.65 million to a value of $51 million, which represented a further decline of 31.63%.
ARIA has not, as yet, broken down cassette figures, but currently includes them under ‘other’, which in 2018 rose 4.98% to 1369 units worth $21,999 (up 43.4%).
However official figures from two of the world’s largest music markets, the US and UK, have shown a definite uptick in consumer demand.
In the US tapes were up 23% to 219,000 last year, after jumping 35% in 2017 to 178,000.
Bestsellers were Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack for the fourth year (Vol. 1 moved 24,000 tapes, Vol. 2 19,000), Twenty One Pilots’ current Trench, Britney Spears’ 1999 debut …Baby One More Time, and the soundtrack to Netflix’s Stranger Things.
In the UK, 35,000 cassettes sold in the first half of this year, double the amount in the same period in 2018, said the British Phonographic Industry.
The Official Charts Company predicts around 75,000 will be sold by the end of 2019.
Biggest sellers there was Billie Eilish’s debut When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (4,000 units), followed by Catfish and The Bottlemen’s The Balance, Madonna’s Madam X, Lewis Capaldi’s Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent and Hozier’s Wasteland Baby.
In this period, cassettes only made up of 0.2% of total UK sales, compared to the 12% made up by vinyl albums.
However Bandcamp’s annual statistics show cassette sales increased almost as much as vinyl sales did in 2017 (41% and 54%, respectively).
“AND GET IT DOWN ON TAPE…”
Cassettes started out as a kids’ toy in the 1960s, hence their small size, and then became a teenager music format.
Teenagers loved the Walkman because it was the first mobile music player, and it had a second headphone jack which allowed them to listen to music with a mate.
They were particularly popular with Australian surfers who boomed wave-friendly bands as Skyhooks, Midnight Oil, INXS and Hoodoo Gurus out of the back of their panel vans.
Half of the 350,000 sales of the first two Skyhooks albums Living In The ‘70s and Ego Is Not A Dirty Word (whose title track had the lyric “and get it down on tape”) were on cassette.
They were the first Australian act to have their cassettes certified gold.
On July 1, 1979, Sony Corp. introduced the Sony Walkman TPS-L2, which turned the ‘80s into the cassette era.
The Walkman cassette model sold 220 million worldwide, so predominant that even similar devices made by other companies as iAwa, Panasonic and Toshiba with their own names, were known by that name.
Updated versions included AM/FM receivers, bass boost and auto-reverse, even solar-powered or water-resistant ones.
By 1983 the cassette tape outsold the vinyl long-player and three years later was included in The Oxford English Dictionary.
Time magazine noted that the new device’s arrival coincided with the birth of the aerobics craze.
“Millions used the Walkman to make their workouts more entertaining.
“Between 1987 and 1997 — the height of the Walkman’s popularity — the number of people who said they walked for exercise increased by 30%.”
Home taping via cassettes were said to cost the industry $440.8 million, although Australia’s Juke magazine did a survey which found that 50% of the tapers would not buy the album if they couldn’t tape it, and 65% of home taping was done by people who already had the album.
To combat piracy, the industry invented something called the compact disc, which launched in 1982 and would only overtake cassette sales in the early 1990s.
By 2001 cassettes only made up 7% of total global sales, and manufacturing stopped a year later.
Always tech-inventive, ‘80s Australian counter-culture picked up on the cassette’s assets to deliver new music.
Fast Forward, the world’s first cassette magazine, came out of Melbourne, the brainchild of Triple R broadcasters Bruce Milne and Andrew Maine.
With a radio show music and interview format, each of the 13 editions sold a few thousand through record stores between November 1980 and October 1982.
Interestingly, as Milne reveals now, “75% of sales were overseas”.
This allowed underground Australian music to be exported, whether it was via live sets from Laughing Clowns; interviews with Birthday Party; Go-Between and Pel Mel demos’ or Young Charlatans doing a cover of Rowland S. Howard’s ‘Shivers’.
Australia’s cassette-only record labels include Melbourne’s Healthy Tapes and Sydney’s Paradise Daily.
The latter was set up by Jaz Brooking, at the time a member of the band Destiny 3000 and issued a myriad of bands ranging from art pop’s Ela Stiles to the punk sounds of Red Red Krovvy, Dry Finish.
PRESS FAST FORWARD
Two major initiatives this year are expected to nudge sales along
Australia has been part of global Cassette Store Day (October 12) since it launched in the UK in 2013, coming on board two years later.
The day is also celebrated with 300 acts and labels in the US, Japan, New Zealand, China, Indonesia and Europe.
Cassette Store Day’s co-founder, Brit Williams says, “For many, CSD is the perfect chance to get music heard to broader audience and bring people together through the art of the tape.”
The second is that Sony is releasing a 40th anniversary Walkman in December for A$599.
The anniversary device does not have tape, but a “special cassette tape user interface and screensaver which changes colour depending on the file played, and has Wi-Fi and Android for music streaming.
It comes with a soft casing that Sony describes as “inspired and pays homage to its first portable cassette player” and gives the user the impression they’re using a cassette.
It has a battery life of 26 hours, a stark difference from the 2.5 hours of the original Walkman with Eveready Heavy Duty batteries and 8 hours with Eveready Alkalines.
How to generate more cassette sales?
Redeye’s Huddy has three suggestions for record companies.
“Keep the price down,” explaining that the occasional $30 price tag for a tape is not justified given the cost of one.
“People seem to like cassettes which have a funny colour.
“Put out reissues by classic acts. Reissues by The Beatles would fly out the door.”