Guardians of the Galaxy was nominated for two Academy Awards today, in predictable categories for a summer blockbuster (Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design). Though its vintage soundtrack wasn’t eligible for a Best Original Song Oscar, the selection of tracks known in the film as Awesome Mix Vol. 1 ruled the music industry last year almost as much as the movie did Hollywood.
Here’s what you probably don’t know: It also sold eye-popping numbers of actual cassettes.
The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack ranked fifth overall among 2014′s top-selling albums in the United States, with 898,00 copies sold, according to Nielsen Music. In November, in partnership with Record Store Day, Disney released Awesome Mix Vol. 1 on cassette, which director James Gunn had already said was in the works. By year-end, the soundtrack had sold 2,300 tapes, Nielsen’s figures show.
Not bad for a format that was supposed to be obsolete. And remarkably, that might be understating the Guardians tape’s sales.
National Audio Company, which manufactured the Guardians cassette, made 11,500 copies of it on tape last year, NAC’s cassette project coordinator Tricia Hedgpeth tells me in an email. She says it was the company’s biggest order of 2014 and that “almost 5,000 are in production now with additional reorders expected.”
Reps for Disney, which released the tape — its first music cassette since 2003 — through Marvel/Hollywood Records, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Nielsen analyst David Bakula, referring to cassette sales in general, says through a spokesperson he’s confident in the sales tracker’s numbers.
Overall, sales of new cassette albums slipped last year to 50K, compared with 60K in 2013, according to Nielsen. Improbably, the late Mexican traditional singer and actor Cuco Sánchez’s posthumous 2002 album Tu Solo Tu ranks as the No. 1 cassette album seller, with 2,600 units moved — though as of this writing the title has fewer than twice that many (4,820) search results on Google.
According to Nielsen, the rest of the top five are Herb Geller’s Jazz Song Book (No. 3, 1,900), Celebrity All Star Jam’s Shakin’ Booty (No. 4, 1,700) and the ninth volume in a ’70s greatest-hits compilation series (No. 5, 1,300).
None of those titles are exactly what those of us who’ve been observing a small-scale cassette revival in recent years might expect.
NAC’s Hedgpeth says most tapes are sold at concerts or online. Nielsen has ways of tracking online sales, but a rep says a venue would have to report tapes sold at shows in order for the transactions to be tracked. To show up in Nielsen figures, cassettes also must have a barcode. Hedgpeth says NAC prints barcodes on request but most of the company’s tapes do not have them.
In last three months of 2014 alone, NAC’s cassette sales were up 89 percent over the same period a year earlier, Hedgpeth tells me. She writes, “Cassettes have definitely not fallen of for National Audio!”
I asked Nielsen to pull up the numbers for some other 2014 tapes. Skrillex‘s Recess, released on cassette for Record Store Day 2014, moved 1,000 units on cassette last year, according to the sales tracker. And Green Day sold 1,000 cassettes of Demolicious, another Record Store Day special. (Recess was limited to 3,000 copies on cassette, according to Billboard; release quantities for the Demolicious tape weren’t disclosed.)
I also asked about Mannequin Pussy‘s Gypsy Pervert, the No. 1 cassette of last year according to author and critic Rob Sheffield’s list for Rolling Stone. Sheffield specifically mentions picking up the tape when he saw the band at the now-defunct Brooklyn venue Death by Audio. Nielsen has a listing for the release, but its database shows no sales. So either Sheffield was the only person to get the tape, and they gave it to him for a free as a member of the press, or any sales of Gypsy Pervert aren’t getting tracked.
Tape album sales are, at the very least, unpredictable. Nielsen previously told me the best-selling tape album of 2012, likely due to a Black Friday fire sale, was Greatest Hits of Baroque. The last annual best-selling cassette album for which I have Nielsen data, Jagged Edge’s Jagged Era in 2009, sold 1,700 copies that year, more than a decade after its release.
NAC doesn’t have permission to disclose production quantities for many of its tapes, but Hedgpeth shared a few more numbers with me that also paint a healthier picture of tape culture.
The cassette comeback has associations with the noise and indie-rock words, but no less a Main Street figure than country singer Sam Hunt, the former college football player, had 5,300 tapes made of his Universal debut, October’s Montevallo (one of our 25 Best Country Albums of 2014). Last year NAC also manufactured 5,000 tapes of Mike Patton-led supergroup Fantômas‘s Wunderkammer, 500 tapes of Bay Area hip-hop vets Souls of Mischief‘s There Is Only Now (see our interview with Souls of Mischief’s Tajai) and 1,000 tapes of masked rapper MF Doom‘s underground classic Operation Doomsday (plus 1,000 tapes of bonus music).
Certainly, cassette sales are still just a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall music business. Total new album sales tracked by Nielsen last year were 257 million; new vinyl albums sold 9.2 million copies in the United States. But whether Guardians sold 2,300 copies on tape last year, 11,500, or somewhere between the two, we can probably all agree — that’s a whole lot of tapes. Meanwhile, tapes’ successor, CDs, are already starting to be phased out of new car models. Awesome Mix Vol. 2 may need to be a streaming playlist.
Listen to 10cc‘s “I’m Not in Love,” which appears on the Guardians soundtrack and which critic Andy Beta called “The Real Song of the Summer” last year over at Deadspin, below, and scroll down for the historical view of cassette album shipment figures, from their 1988 peak at 488 million to their virtually non-existent status in 2013, based on the Recording Industry Association of America’s data.