Back to the ’80s, cassettes revel in retro popularity

September 21, 2023 | (Neal Augenstein)

WASHINGTON — When recorded cassettes and the boomboxes to play them upon hit the shelves of Urban Outfitters,  it’s official — vinyl isn’t the only retro music format striking a chord with young people.

Just in time for Saturday’s third annual Cassette Store Day, where special releases will be available at stores that carry music on cassettes, Urban Outfitters will now stock cassettes and retro cassette players in select brick-and-mortar stores (including Georgetown and Gallery Place).

It’s not just indie bands stoking the cassette embers, established bands including Motorhead and Green Day are putting out new music on cassettes for the international day, which is also being celebrated in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany.

On its website, Urban Outfitter is selling new cassette albums and re-releases, ranging from $9.98 to $13.98.

Players include a handheld Jensen Cassette Tape Player and Recorder for $38, and a boombox for $60.

Recognizing that most people dipping their toes into the cassette pool also have smartphones, a Bluetooth cassette adapter for use in the car is on sale for $32.

One of the largest makers of cassette tapes says the renewed interest in cassette tapes, which often break and can take minutes to rewind, shouldn’t be surprising.

National Audio Company, which opened in 1969, produced 10 million tapes last year, according to reports.

By 1993 CDs were outselling cassette tapes. By 2000 only four percent of music sold was on cassette.

The company says cassette sales are up 20 percent year-over-year, with 70 percent of the sales in the music category, according to Bloomberg.

With streaming and digital downloads the current favorite ways for people to buy and listen to music, some fans enjoy the tactile aspect of owning a hard copy.

“There’s the nostalgia of holding the audio cassette in your hand,” NAC president Steve Stepp told Bloomberg.

The format that introduced the concept of “music to go,” with the Sony Walkman, it’s unlikely cassettes will return to the popularity they held in the 1980s, when home dubbing of “mix tapes,” fueled an anti-copyright infringement campaign claiming “home taping is killing music.”

According to Digital Trends, the top-selling cassette of 2014 was from late Mexican singer Cuco Sanchez, selling 2600 units.

The largest selling vinyl album of last year was Jack White’s “Lazaretto,” which sold 87,000 copies.

By contrast, last year more than 41 million people used music subscription services, as digital downloads continue to decline.

The top selling album of 2014 was Frozen, with 10 million sales of physical and digital albums, according to the IFPI, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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