The comeback of retro technology

Ousted by the mass market, on the advance in the niche: music cassettes, retro consoles or Polaroid cameras from the 80s and 90s are back in fashion. But it doesn’t work entirely without modern technology.

Oh yeah, back then … when you jumped up to record your favorite song on the radio; when hearts were conquered with self-made mixtapes; when the tape salad could be tamed again with pencil and patience. Anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s often raves about the music cassette. Others get nostalgic when they think of the clunky Commodore 64 home computer, the first Nintendo game console or the old party pictures from the instant camera.

All these multimedia products have long ceased to shape the mass market. They have ousted streaming services like Spotify , smartphone games and digital photography from there. According to data from the Federal Association of the Music Industry, sales of cassettes in Germany fell from a low EUR 13 million in 2009 to under EUR 1 million last year. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, it fell by a full eleven percent. Only the record has been making a major comeback among analogue sound carriers for a long time: between 2009 and 2018, sales of vinyl increased sevenfold to around 70 million euros.

But music cassettes and the like have also survived in the niche – and are even enjoying growing popularity there. So much so that start-ups and companies have grown new business models around them – or have been able to maintain old ones.

“Over the years, we have continued to develop both quantitatively and qualitatively in order to meet the steadily increasing demand for cassettes,” says Franziska Kohlhase from the Leipzig company TAPE Muzik. A handful of employees there have been producing “audio cassettes and accessories” since 2004, as it says on the website.

The demand comes mainly from bands, labels or major customers, “mostly for smaller quantities, but sometimes for several thousand units,” says Kohlhase. Customers deliver their pieces as digital files. “These are copied directly onto large tape reels on professional copying machines before the tape is then rewound into the cassettes.” This guarantees a much better sound quality than copying the tape onto cassettes.

The company is not an isolated case. Larger players have also recognized the trend and put corresponding products on offer. The fashion chain Urban Outfitters, for example, which primarily has a young target group in view, sells Walkmen, Eminem tapes and Polaroid cameras in its online shop. The Chinese start-up Ninm is currently collecting money for the development of a portable cassette player with the latest Bluetooth technology. The company also offers an instant camera in the design of analog single-lens reflex cameras.

Because the retro trend in multimedia products also extends to photography. Last year, 460,000 instant cameras were sold in Germany, the Photo Industry Association announced on request – more than four times as many as in 2014. “Generation Z, who make up a large proportion of the instant camera buyer group, is excited about this new experience “Says a spokeswoman. “And of course many nostalgic people can also get excited about the new edition of the instant photo.”

There are also unusual twists and turns. The instant cameras under the traditional name Polaroid are now being built by a company that originally began as a fan project. The “Impossible Project” was formed in the Netherlands after Polaroid announced the closure of the film factory there – with the aim of maintaining production. In 2016 Impossible brought its own newly developed instant camera onto the market. The following year, the main shareholder of Impossible bought the Polaroid brand and the licensing business.

And the modern versions of old game consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System or the first Playstation are also well received. “Almost every second gamer (49 percent) in Germany finds the new editions of SNES, Playstation and Co. interesting,” the Association of the German Games Industry recently determined in an online survey of more than 2000 game enthusiasts. Every fourth respondent has already bought one.

“First and foremost, such trends naturally work well with consumers who have witnessed the time themselves,” says Sascha Raithel, Professor of Marketing at the Free University of Berlin. “This is also a psychological phenomenon: Experiences from youth are saved more positively than they actually were.” However, such trends could also work less often with young people who would not have experienced the time directly themselves. However, he warns companies not to grow old with their own target group. It is often overlooked that future generations have different interests and preferences.

This is probably one of the reasons why the suppliers of retro products concentrate primarily on the facade: Old game consoles may be well received, but the graphics from back then certainly not. That’s why modern technology is hidden under the retro plastic cover. The games no longer have to be plugged in, but are installed on the hard drive. The sound quality of cassettes at that time should also no longer convince anyone, and the fact that you can connect a player to the computer will also help sales. The originals may be celebrated, but the younger generation, in particular, cannot do without the digital comforts of today.