What does the revival of cassette tapes mean for digital preservation? - Arkivum

Blog / 04 Jun, 2021

What does the revival of cassette tapes mean for digital preservation?

Every few years or so, a trend from the past sees a resurgence in popularity and suddenly, social media timelines and stories are awash with nostalgia and trips down memory lane. But an item which you may be a tad surprised to hear is back, is that of the humble cassette tape. You remember, the small plastic rectangle with and A and B side holding the latest single…or perhaps, even your own mix tape.

According to British Phonographic Industry figures, 156,542 cassettes were sold in the UK in 2020, the highest figure since 2003 and an increase of 94.7% on 2019 sales.

A few more facts to blow your cassette-focused mind:

  • In 2011, the Oxford English Dictionary removed the word “cassette player” from its 12th edition Concise version.
  • According to Music Week, the top-selling pre-recorded cassette in the UK in 2011 was ‘N Sync’s 2000 album, I’ll Never Stop, moving a total of 11 (no, that’s not a typo) units. It was also the biggest-selling cassette in 2010 (13 units) and 2009 (24 units) …sorry Justin.

 
It may be a question mark to some but it’s not the first time a media format has risen again. Take vinyl for example. Since the noughties, the LP has been enjoying its second revival as surely evidenced through the fact that the highest price ever paid for a vinyl was for $790,000 in 2015.

Whilst vinyl’s second heyday may be more understandable with its vintage feel and quality of music playback, does tape still fulfil its original storage purpose in today’s world? Is it secure and sophisticated enough for today’s data requirements? And most of all, can it compete against the ever-growing cloud technology?

Data-driven organisations must protect their digital assets

Over the years, regulations and standards have been brought in to protect, archive and future-proof all matter of data and digital assets. From archiving museum collections, preserving original papers and records, through to holding clinical trial research data, there are a lot of tick boxes an organisation must fulfil if data is to be secure, accessible and reusable for future generations.

With so many media storage options available, where does tape fit?

Is tape fit-for-purpose…now?

By and large, tape is a relatively cheap medium for storing music files on and whilst you may get satisfaction from the tape whirring back to the start, is it really a viable storage option for modern day archiving?

In relation to non-regulated or organisations which aren’t data intensive, then it could be a medium which serves your needs.

However, for the premise of this article we’ll assume that you operate within a regulated or data-intensive industry…so how does tape fare? Does the use of tape as a backup pose more challenges than benefits?

Benefits:

Challenges:

  • Requires human resource to package, move and organise the tapes.
  • Its life expectancy is hugely variable with some failing within a 5-year period or less.
  • Prone to physical loss and damage.
  • Bit-rot (deterioration and degradation) can render the media and data inaccessible and unreadable – a major challenge if you need to be able to reuse the data in the future.
  • Slow read speed.
  • It must be kept in an optimal environment to preserve its integrity and when you factor in the storage space required and the level of humidity (etc.), your once cheap option will start to increase in costs.
  • Natural disasters are a threat, particularly in some regions.
  • Tape reaches a retirement age when it’s no longer up to the task of archiving and preservation.
  • Searching is more laborious and if you’re looking through 1000s of tapes…
  • The device connections needed to read portable media may no longer be available e.g. many laptops today have no floppy drive, DVD drive, or even USB-A ports.

Looking to other solutions

As we can see from the above, as much as many of us would like to revert to the trusty tape of yesteryear, for organisations who require a robust storage method which protects their data for the long-term, preserves it within a state of inspection readiness (if applicable) and maintains a readable and reusable format, tape isn’t the winning ticket.

But don’t fear, we’re currently working on another very interesting article that compares different storage options for you if you decide tape isn’t quite right.

Onto the B side:

Of course, there’s no method which is right for everyone and it’s crucial that you explore and understand your different storage options.

Aside from the factors mentioned throughout this article, the total cost of ownership (TCO) is also a large contributing factor. You’ll have to weigh up the fiscal costs against potential non-financial costs and implications if your solution does not meet your full data requirements.

So, whilst tape may indeed be making a comeback for your favourite albums, it sadly won’t have a starring role in the world of digital archiving and preservation. But if you’re now wondering which options you should be exploring then don’t fear because we’ve got you covered in our follow up article. Make sure you don’t miss out on it by signing up to our newsletter or just keep an eye on our LinkedIn and Twitter pages.

If you would like any further information or to speak to a member of the team contact us today.

Harriet Clark

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