Photo by Esa Sorjonen via Wikimedia Commons

As Sony Walkman Turns 35, Cassettes Refuse to Die

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 07.01.14 in News

“Seems like only yesterday I’d get a blank cassette,” goes one song from an album released last month. The next line gives away the genre: “Record the country countdown ’cause I couldn’t buy it yet.” This isn’t some indie-rock revivalist, then: It’s Miranda Lambert on “Automatic,” a country airplay chart-topper that’s actually, in its good-ol’-days patness, one of the more frustrating songs from the Nashville badass’s stacked new Platinum.

With the Sony Walkman turning 35 years old today, it’s worth checking in on the audio format it helped listeners bring with them everywhere. Yup, as technology sites like TechRadar and Mashable point out, it was on this day in 1979 that the first model of the classic portable stereo went on sale in Japan. And while, for sure, cassette sales have fallen off catastrophically since their heyday, shout-outs like Lambert’s showcase how the homely analog medium has kept a cultural foothold long after the introduction of the iPod.

I first wrote about a mini-resurgence of cassettes for Pitchfork in 2010, when the format was coming off its worst sales year in Nielsen SoundScan’s database. Since then, tapes have still had a hard time moving units — as Billboard reports, SoundScan counts only 1,000 cassette albums sold during the week of last year’s first annual Cassette Store Day — but there’s a thing that exists called Cassette Store Day. A second annual Cassette Store Day is set for September 27, with Southern California tape stalwarts Burger Records as the event’s U.S. ambassadors.

The surprisingly long life of the tape format has carried over to Record Store Day, too. This year’s list of offerings included cassettes from boldface names like Skrillex and Green Day. And though cassette albums, which sold only 34,000 copies as recently as 2009, will surely never return to numbers like the 268 million they moved in 1993, the first year SoundScan has on record — and even then they’d already been surpassed by CDs — well, isn’t that part of the appeal? As Nick Sylvester wrote last year over at Pitchfork, some of the cassette’s charm lies in the fact that “it’s just a cassette.”

Fittingly, Sylvester’s now-defunct noise-rock band, Mr. Dream, is offering its final release, Ultimate in Luxury, on — you guessed it — cassette. Lambert can probably tape over it if she wants. But a humble few committed listeners will be able to carry the album, and others like it, around on the portable tape players that followed the original Walkman: an invention that’s showing unexpected signs of life well into its fourth decade.