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Unwinding the Birth, Rise, Fall and Return of the Cassette Tape

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While the use of magnetic tape to record and play music dates back to the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1963, at the Berlin Radio Show, that Philips introduced the two-spool cassette. Twenty years later, the finicky format passed vinyl as the most popular music medium in the United States, but it was a short-lived victory: The CD soon spun it into the bargain bin of history. But two decades after most music fans pressed the Eject button, cassettes are following vinyl’s comeback in stores and stereos.


Reel Love

Operating under the Norelco brand in the United States, Philips launched an “intensified advertising and promotion drive” to get cassettes into American homes,” according to the Sept. 24, 1966, Billboard. “The Norelco success on TV with shavers will hopefully be duplicated with recorders.” By the Nov. 26 issue, Philips predicted that “the market for equipment that can record and play back cassettes will reach 4 million sets” within a few years, citing one advantage the format had over vinyl: the “capability to play in any position, even upside down.”

Hitting Pause on High-End

Over the next decade, cassette sales were on fast-forward — but the format struggled to attract audiophiles, who stuck with vinyl. “A $19 cassette is a difficult sale to make,” mused an ad executive who worked for a chain store in the May 8, 1982, Billboard, referring to high-end cassettes. But electronics company Maxell tried: In that very issue, a pre-fame Geena Davis, leaning on a shelf full of tapes, appeared in a full-page ad targeting audiophiles.

Tapes and Tapes

Big Brother must have carried a Walkman: In 1984, the March 24 issue reported that “cassettes toppled LPs as the dominant prerecorded audio configuration last year, accounting for almost 53% of all album product shipped to trade.” Cassettes were up 30.1% year over year, while vinyl dropped 14.1%. The “portable lifestyle,” Billboard noted, “continues to propel sales to new peaks.”

Find Cassingles Near You

“Is Cassette-Single Format Winding Down Already?” asked the front page of the Dec. 21, 1991, Billboard. Apparently so: “The dollar value of CD sales surpassed that of cassettes,” according to an article in that issue. “Most distribution executives [agree that] the format has passed its peak,” though one Midwest chain store owner blamed “lousy songs,” insisting that the decline was nothing “a couple of hits couldn’t fix.”

Measuring Tapes

By the end of the ’90s, cassette sales were unspooling. “The decline of today’s cassette mirrors the disappearance of the 8-track tape two decades ago,” Billboard reported in its Dec. 28, 2002, issue. A year later, cassette sales had dropped 40.3% while CD sales had dropped just 3%, due to the rise of online piracy. In a Dec. 19, 2009, year-end “Sales by Album Format” graphic, cassettes had been folded into the “other” category. But reports of the format’s death were greatly exaggerated. From 2015 to 2022, the little tape that could saw a 443% increase in U.S. sales, according to Luminate, as marquee names like Taylor Swift, Megan Thee Stallion and Maren Morris cued up the cassette’s comeback.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2023, issue of Billboard.

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