Although the numbers are absurdly small, the UK's Official Charts Company keeps up with not only cassette sales but the sales of cassette singles aka cassingles. In 2012 they tripled to 604 units sold. But the sales figures and notable cassette releases captured in the charts may be the least important aspect of music on cassette when one considers the subcultures the charts cannot track.
Billboard has quite the array of sales charts but even their year end report doesn't break out cassette sales lumping them in with "Total Album Sales" and "Physical Music Sales." Cassingles? You gotta be kidding me!
Apparently the Official Charts Company does find it worthwhile to break out cassette sales even if only to get some extra coverage in Hypebot. UK sales of:
Cassette singles tripled in 2012 to 604 copies from 2011's 218 copies;
While 3823 cassette albums were sold in 2012.
UK cassingle sales were driven by Feeder's release of "Borders" on cassette which sold 480 copies in the UK. Not sure how cassette albums compare to last year but Charles Aznavour's "She – The Best Of" took top honors for cassette album sales.
Though the Official Charts Company obviously pointed out this bit of data in order to drive some web traffic and news awareness, I think it does raise some interesting points if you switch from a focus on the historical progression of dominant formats driving music sales to one that emphasizes collectibles and aesthetic communities.
As overall music sales have dropped collectible music releases as well as unique music merch designed to feed superfans, collectors and cultists have become a more important source of revenue. Only a portion of this activity gets tracked by official sources and things like mail order sales of noise cassettes by microlabels run by people identified only by their first name tend to fly under the radar.
But even though official charts may only be revealing the tip of an iceberg, it's probably not that big of an iceberg in terms of overall sales. And from a collectibles standpoint cassettes can be seen as just another cool and somewhat obscure item a band might choose to release.
However, from the perspective of aesthetic communities focused on DIY culture and musical experimentation, cassettes represent a shared perspective that goes beyond enjoying a specific format and occupies a realm somewhat different than that of vinyl fanatics. While vinyl is embraced by audiophiles and requires specialist technology for recording, cassettes are easy to copy and lend themselves to more handmade efforts.
This more personal aspect of cassette releases help remove advocates from a world of sales charts and allows them to build networks of like-minded folks more interested in making art than in making money. Sure, some may be circulating new punk tapes that pretty much recreate the sounds of the 80s just as a folk purist might lovingly emulate Pete Seeger, but even throwback cassette labels are an important part of building alternative subcultures that entertain creative ideas without first evaluating their commercial potential.
At the end of the day, the fact that such activity continues to escape the surveillance of mainstream business interests may be the best thing going for subcultures that see cassettes as something more than a throwback technology.
Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (Twitter/App.net) blogs about music crowdfunding at Crowdfunding For Musicians (@CrowdfundingM). To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.