The surprise musical comeback of 2017 was no crusty rocker or vintage crooner – but instead the humble cassette tape, with a nostalgia bubble feeding demand for an archaic audio format many imagined had been unspooled for good.
Sales of the much-maligned medium have more than doubled in the past two years. According to industry analysts Nielson, cassette sales rose 35 percent in the United States last year – building on a remarkable 74 percent spike in 2016 – while sales also more than doubled in the United Kingdom in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, at least two specialist cassette labels have sprung up in the UAE.
The sudden boom is prompting enthusiastic cries that cassettes could be "the new vinyl", with the global resurgence in big black records showing no signs of abating, as LP sales clock a 28-year high. But while the lush, large-format packing and superior sound quality mark out the 12-inch platform, for many the most poignant cassette memories are spooling them back to life with a pencil after being chewed up by a Walkman.
While the 129,000 tapes sold in the US last year don't make a patch on the 14 million records shifted in the same period, both revivals are fuelled by a similar reaction to the rise of digital music. In the intangible era of streaming, music fans itch for a physical product, a concrete souvenir of the art they hold dear – and exploiting nostalgia for car stereos and personal mixtapes makes cassettes the next gimmick.
Notably, leading the tape revival last year was Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 – which accounted for more than one in five US tape sales – a meta soundtrack which was the playlist of the film's lead character Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt. Other big sellers were soundtracks to Netflix's Stranger Things and the smash musical The Hamilton Mixtape, alongside retro reissues by Eminem and Nirvana.
But these big label releases are only part of the story, and certainly don't confront the crucial twist, likely not reflected in official figures. The bulk of tape sales are made by artists or small labels direct to their fans, online or at gigs. The lightweight, pocketable format is ideal for both.
In October, Jack White's Third Man Records issued the first three albums by his band The White Stripes on tape for the first time, to mark Cassette Store Day, a celebration inaugurated in 2013 and inspired by the success of Record Store Day, first held in April 2008.
Last year, when Los Angeles' Dengue Fever performed in Abu Dhabi, among the inventive merchandise was a cassette-only "Best Of" compilation, at just Dh20 and presented like a bootleg of their own back catalogue.
In the UAE, specialist imprint Bastakiya Tapes has issued eight cassette releases since it was founded in 2015. A subsidy of Bedouin Records, the label specialises in moody, atmospheric soundscapes from underground artists such as Greek electronic duo Ekkert, UK-based multi-instrumentalist Memotone and Ireland's Eomac. Each tape is limited to just 100 copies, and comes with a free digital download.
Co-founder Salem Rashid hails the format's cheaper production costs and warm analogue sonics – while acknowledging the sentimentality. "I think for most part, it was the nostalgia of our childhood and the lo-fi quality which gives substance to the type of music we release on Bastakiya Tapes," he says. "Usually, most of our customers are cassette label owners themselves, so we do feel privileged to be part of that movement."
As well as shipping to hip label owners in Berlin and Bristol, the Bastakiya Tapes catalogue is also on sale locally at Flipside DXB, the specialist vinyl store which opened in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue last year. It shares shelf space with two tapes from GYPS, a fresh spin-off label from store owner Shadi Megallaa, standing apart from the DJ’s main imprint Ark to Ashes. Featuring his own productions alongside collaborator Abood Nasrawi, the 50 copies of GYPS1 printed have sold out. Megallaa argues the format’s DIY ethos and poor sonic reproduction suits his niche output.
“As an artist, I quite like the effect that tape has on music,” he says. “Tape hiss lends itself well to certain styles, like ambient and dub. The sound is much rounder, and even though the high frequencies suffer a little, it’s a much more pleasurable listening experience than to hear a very shiny and super bright digital reproduction of the same source.”
Compassion for cassettes runs particularly deep in the UAE, a market which for the most part embraced recorded music first via tape, leap-frogging vinyl altogether. Introduced in the early 1970s, tapes are still a common choice for car stereos – CDs skip on bumpy desert drives – and today a spattering of specialist cassette shops continue to do business across the Emirates, such as Abu Dhabi's Al Balad Audio Cassettes, which sells tapes for Dh10 in Madinat Zayed shopping centre, as previously featured in The National.
Bearing the faded faces of vintage Arab stars, the shop’s rows of tapes recall a bygone, and largely forgotten, time – because many of these albums never made it onto CD. And when these limited stocks are exhausted, no more will be printed, meaning many recordings, particularly by Emirati and Khaleeji singers, risk being lost for good.
Flipside DXB pays tribute to this dying era with a huge collage of retro Arabic cassette covers marking its warehouse wall, while in October the hangout hosted a talk titled Cassette Culture in the UAE. Indeed, while he may be best known as the face of the Emirates’ vinyl revival, Megallaa’s next mission is to preserve the country’s dwindling cassette reserves.
“For me personally, I got back into tapes a few years ago because I was on the hunt for Emirati music – and the only way to get that music is the tape format,” he says.
This mission was documented in Magnetic Fossils, a short documentary posted on YouTube last year in which Megallaa hunts for cassette shops across the Emirates, while wistfully sharing the sundry stocks of Arabic tapes he has collected in the UAE, Kuwait and his native Egypt. "Usually the worse the cover, the better they are," he quips.
So while the western world enjoys a hipster-fuelled embrace of tapes, soaked by nostalgia, in the UAE there is some valuable heritage which risks being lost. A deeply rooted cassette culture, and a lot of uncatalogued music, may be in danger of extinction – and it will take more than the passing vogue of a Hollywood film to save it.