Edmonton

Cassettes are making a comeback — but in Edmonton, they never went away

A number of mainstream artists are now releasing their music on cassettes, but the Edmonton Indie music scene never let go of the vintage technology.

'It's the currency of music in the city'

A young woman with blonde hair, wearing a light blue hoodie, is smiling while sitting cross-legged. Earbuds are in her ears. She is holding up a Walkman in one hand and a yellow cassette case in the other.
Mikayla Crook, 20, recently ordered the limited edition cassette box for British singer Harry Styles' new album, Harry's House, right. (Submitted by Mikayla Crook)

Over the course of the past few years, a number of retro concepts have seen a resurgence — Polaroids, vinyl records, flared denim and curtain bangs. 

Now, it looks like the new kid on the block to make a comeback is music on cassette.

"Tapes are smaller, they have the nostalgic factor that [compact discs] don't have. They have the analog appeal as well," said Kris Burwash, of Listen Records, about why cassettes are still popular in Edmonton. 

Listen Records, which refers to itself as Edmonton's eclectic music emporium, is a go-to spot for vinyl records. But Burwash said its cassette collection is also slowly growing. 

Cassette sales have increased in Canada by 39 per cent so far this year, according to Luminate Data, which offers data and insights for the entertainment industry.

LISTEN | Cassette Comeback - Mangled Tapes:

Time to kick off our new summer series, Cassette Comeback! Here in Edmonton, artists are once again releasing music on cassette, and we wanted to find out why. First up, local label Mangled Tapes. Edmonton AM's Colton Hutchinson spoke to the label's founder, Matt Belton, about his music and the spirit behind the label.

But for a select group of people in the local music industry, the medium never really went away. 

Edmonton label Mangled Tapes has been around since 2016 and always recorded on cassette tapes.

"It's just cheap," said founder Matt Belton. "There's a big supply sitting around in people's garages… It's the currency of music in the city."

The Edmonton music scene is heavily influenced by classic rock and Indie, of which cassette tapes are a big part, Belton explained.

On a personal level, Belton finds the low quality sound and limits of cassettes are better compared to the myriad of options digital provides.

"I'm forced to be creative when there are constraints," he said.

A bearded man stands in front of shelves full of cassette tape cases.
Kris Burwash stands in front of a collection of cassettes in Listen Records, his music store in Edmonton. (Submitted by Kris Burwash)

Cassette comeback 

Edmonton student Mikayla Crook, 20, recently ordered the limited edition cassette box for British singer Harry Styles' new album, Harry's House.

"They're kind of a new trend," Crook said, referring to TikTok trends and the latest season of Stranger Things.

The Netflix sci-fi, mystery series, set in the 1980s, shows one of the characters, Max, walking around with a Walkman, listening to Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill. The song topped music chart last month after the season aired.

TikToks with the hashtags "cassette" and/or "tape deck" show teenagers shoving a cassette tape — with the case on — into a tape deck or player, and a laughing parent in the background. Others show TikTokers, holding cassette cases, asking the audience, "How do you open these?"

Mainstream record labels are also putting out cassette tapes for artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Harry Styles and Lana Del Ray. Stores such as Urban Outfitters, a lifestyle retailer catering to Indie millennials, are now selling cassette tape players.

LISTEN | Cassette Comeback - into the mainstream:

Time for another episode in our series Cassette Comeback! We've been learning about the resurgence of DIY-style cassettes from independent musicians. But the mainstream industry is also starting to catch on to the trend. Colton Hutchinson spoke to Brian Fauteux, an associate professor of popular music and media studies at the University of Alberta, for his perspective.

Crook, who purchased a tape player from Urban Outfitters, knew how to open the cassette cases from movies she had watched.

"I did know how to open it," she said. "Then you have to use the pencil to rewind it."

Brian Fauteux, a University of Alberta assistant professor of popular music and media studies, dates the renewed interest in cassette tapes back to 2014, following the release of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.

The main protagonist, Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt, opens the film by putting on headphones, pressing play on a Walkman and jamming out to Come and Get Your Love by Redbone. He is shown throughout the film listening to the cassette mixtape, which features other music from the 1960s and 1970s.

"That was a moment when I heard that a lot of younger people, who hadn't really had a close relationship with cassette culture, [were] purchasing [the Guardians of the Galaxy mixtape] on cassette as a fun thing to do," Fauteux said.

LISTEN | Cassette Comeback - Listen Records:

Time for another chapter in our series looking at the return of the classic cassette. Just how popular are tapes in the digital age, and how easy is it to find a tape deck in good working order? Colton Hutchinson spoke to Kris Burwash of Listen Records for his perspective.

He believes the interest in cassette tapes has to do with nostalgia — many once-popular things from the 1980s and 1990s are coming back — and aesthetics. It's also one way for mainstream artists to stand out.

"It's about, 'How are we going to get somebody's attention and turn them on to this release?'" he said. "That might be something like a surprise album drop — like Drake's latest [album, Honestly, Nevermind] — or it could be having it be released on cassette tape."

The jump in sales for cassettes seen in Canada is on par with the popularity of all things music that Music Canada, a national industry group, has noticed since the COVID-19 pandemic started, said CEO Patrick Rogers. 

"People are finding new or old ways to interact with music. For us, that's a really exciting trend to have," Rogers said. 

People are buying and consuming music in different ways, but things like cassettes may just be for collecting purposes, he said, suggesting it allows them to "hold and enjoy the music that is near and dear to them."

Crook said her friends have bought cassettes solely to display them in their rooms. 

Despite their growing popularity, many believe cassettes won't reach the heights that vinyl did in the mainstream, likely because of their sound quality.

"Too many people are like, 'Oh, they were the worst,'" said Burwash, from Listen Records in Edmonton.

"It's still very niche."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kashmala Fida Mohatarem is a reporter and associate producer with CBC Edmonton.

With files from Colton Hutchinson

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