Famed as much for their ability to stretch, jam and tangle their way into your prized music players, the humble cassette tape has been firmly lodged into many people’s hearts. Who of a certain age can’t remember rewinding the tape on a pencil to save batteries, the endless joys of creating your own mix albums, or the long and painful extractions as your favourite tunes got eaten by the cassette player? Today 55 years after their first release and approximately 20 years since they commonly fell out of use, its nice to say a revival is currently underway both for new and vintage examples.
For more traditional audio-heads the compact cassette (aka tapes) and its associated players will never be as worthy as the mighty vinyl and record player. But as the industry standard for over 30 years, tapes raised the bar both in quality of recording and through the machine that went with it. Earlier reel to reel had always been a good format and continued in professional use till only a few years ago, but for the average consumer it was also a fiddly one. While some companies such as RCA Victor had begun to introduce their own similar cartridge cassettes in the late 1950s, it was the engineers at Phillips who would compact the idea down to the manageable size it is today. Their first cassette (the EL1903-1) was actually a blank and the machine that accompanied it (the EL3300) was intended to be used as a Dictaphone primarily. However as is always the case, youth culture had other ideas, and within a few years there were more and more record companies releasing commercial albums onto tape and lots of players to choose from.
As a fast-growing collectables field, tapes are being sought both by a global middle-aged group with a clear sense of nostalgia, and also by millennials as a form of digital rebellion. Today more and more contemporary grass-roots bands and Hipster musicians are releasing on cassette again, but there are also a growing number of people collecting the old tapes and tape players as well.
At the top of the pile are machines such as the Nakamichi Dragon and some high end Tandberg models that are considered among the best tape players ever made. Today a full serviced Dragon will set you back around £1500-£2000 and the Tandbergs between £2000-£4000. One year ago prices were approximately one third lower which shows the rising popularity of the field. In a similar vein the best quality portable cassette players from the 1980s are also worth good money. A boxed Sony WM-DD9 (a top of the range player in 1990) will make just over £1000, the first Sony Walkman the TPS-L2 in box can make up to £1500 and limited-edition machines from the 1980s and 90s will fetch up to around £4000. Of course, as you go down the desirability scale, the prices fall accordingly. At the bottom end there are still a plethora of perfectly usable but uninspiring tape players and decks out there to be picked up for less than £20.
As for the tapes themselves then, these also have a good cult following. The most desirable seem to be the demo or private releases from the early days of Hip Hop and Rap and can regularly sell for up to £2000-£3000 for a single tape. That said a rare Led Zeppelin or U2 tape can also fetch around £1000 which is not to be sniffed at either. Where I think the market gets strange is in the field of blank cassettes. With more and more international collectors and musicians coming back to actually using the medium of tape again, then the best quality tapes to record onto can only be found in the second-hand market (as production of these versions ceased years ago). Strange as it may seem a sealed TDK-MR blank tape will happily sell for £60 and packs of good quality metal sealed tapes can make over £100. As for the very first (the Philips EL1903-1) well that too is worth around £100 currently for a single boxed example.
Collecting vintage compact cassettes and tape players feels very much linked into our current love for all things retro and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. They shout of 1980s and 90s nostalgia and get instantly recognised when used in cult movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy. They will forever be tied as much to the underground music scene as the big corporate labels, and will always appeal to a global generation. And one thing is for sure. Whatever the innovations and contributions tapes made to the development and history of music, future generations will still be able to experience the heart-ache of a chewed up tape!