The resurgence of vinyl has been a centerpiece of the physical media story for years now, but records aren’t the only format that’s steadily rising back to relevance. Cassette tapes, a majority of which are sold online in direct-to-consumer settings, are experiencing a bit of a comeback, according to Nielsen’s year-end music report. In 2016, cassette sales rose 74 percent, to 129,000 units. That’s a paltry amount when compared to vinyl’s 13.1 million unit sales, and the declining CD market still notched 105 million units. Yet similar to vinyl, a cassette sale bump represents a healthier appetite for physical goods only playable on now-vintage hardware.
Helping the cassette boom are a few factors. For one, the official soundtrack for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is still going strong, despite its 2014 release. The soundtrack, featured heavily in the movie as the personal mixtape of Chris Pratt’s character Peter Quill, sold 4,000 units last year. That brings its total to 11,000 units since release. Justin Bieber’s Purpose and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, both 2015 releases, also brought in around 1,000 cassette sales each thanks to exclusive partnerships with retailer Urban Outfitters. Additionally, there were tape reissues of Eminem and Prince albums that brought in another 3,000 to 4,000 units each.
While these are obviously well-known albums from the world’s biggest musicians, a majority of cassette sales come from small batches being bought by hardcore fans online. As Billboard notes, 43 percent of all cassette sales in 2016 were through direct-to-consumer operations like bands’ personal websites or the online shops of independent record labels. Often times, cassettes and vinyl act as an outlet for a band’s aesthetic tastes and product design prowess, giving consumers something physical to cherish at a time when unique album art and liner notes have been relegated to nonessential status.