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As a child of the ’90s, I’m just barely old enough to feel nostalgic about cassettes. My first album was a tape of the Austin Powers soundtrack (actually a pretty decent collection of ’60s acid rock), and a few years after that, I can remember dubbing a copy of my friend’s scratched-up Operation Ivy CD on a boom box at our local skate park. By high school, I’d snagged a warped Fishbone cassette at a thrift store to slam into my family station wagon’s tape deck as my buddies and I trolled our suburban main drag looking for someone to buy us beer.
While they are easy to romanticize, cassettes for me were in reality never more than a novelty — either a cool find at the bottom of a free bin or a cheap alternative to spending $18 on a new CD.▼ Article continues below ▼
It’s easy to dismiss the recent cassette resurgence as a nostalgic trend, but in fact, many people driving today’s tape boom never had more than a passing relationship with tapes. Twenty-and-thirty-something year old music fans’ infatuation with this outdated medium stems not as much from nostalgia, but from an aesthetic connection that Spotify, SoundCloud, or even vinyl can’t replicate.
In between the golden age of LPs and the everlasting promise of the compact disc, there was the compact cassette tape. Originally introduced by Philips in 1963 at a radio convention in Berlin, it was not until 1983 that cassettes overtook LPs as the industry’s top selling audio format. Aside from a newfound portability with the introduction of the Walkman in 1979, cassettes also ushered in a subculture of mixtapes and DIY recording. The affordability and ease of distribution of tapes offered a new freedom for bands and helped fuel ’80s underground scenes like hardcore and college rock.
By 1991, however, CDs had overtaken cassettes as the top selling format, and by 2005, fewer than a few million cassettes were shipped in North America, according to data gathered by the Record Industry Association of America.
But around the mid 2000s, a number of indie record labels began popping up releasing cassettes exclusively. Burger Records in Southern California, for example, started releasing tapes for garage rock outfits like Nobunny and The Go in 2007 and quickly grew into one of the country’s most celebrated (and truly independent) labels.
Today, hundreds of indie labels are releasing tapes worldwide, and sales continue to grow as a subset of music fans turn to cassettes as an alternative to the fleeting quality of digital music. Cassette culture has even begun to go mainstream, getting coverage from publications like Newsweek and Billboard and even receiving the “Cassette Store Day” treatment like its vinyl brethren.
When asked why he thinks people are rediscovering cassettes, Jon Manning, founder of Lost Sound Tapes in Seattle, explains, “It’s exactly the same response as, ‘Why read a book when you could download it and read it on an e-book reader?’ The music, while it is the most important aspect, is only one part of a complete work of art.”
The physical experience of holding a cassette is a huge reason for tape’s appeal, and artists and labels take great care in designing the cover art, j-card fold out, and even the cassette itself. This, coupled with the fact that most releases are limited to at most a thousand or so copies, makes each cassette its own unique artifact and keepsake.
Oakland-based musician Mark Aubert, whose done cassette releases with labels including Acorn Tapes and Carpi Records, sums up this sentiment well: “We are still in the ‘honeymoon’ period of technology; data has moved away from the physical form and I think a lot of people are beginning to resist the shift, gravitating towards physical items to provide a more human, handmade quality.”
Another reason for the resurgence of cassette culture is the affordability of tapes for musicians, labels, and fans alike. Cassettes are much cheaper to produce than CDs or vinyl, and can be an eye-catching option for bands to sell at their merch tables for only a few bucks.
For Aubert, “The obvious advantage is cost. If all steps along the way are done properly, there is room for profit.” Adding that, “[Many] small labels would opt for vinyl, but the cost of production is a significant investment most cannot afford.”
A release on Lost Sound Tapes, for example, consists of 100 tapes, costing roughly $2.50 each to produce and then sold for $5 a piece. Although many DIY labels dub cassette copies on their own, Manning stresses the value of professional duplication: “Having tapes professionally duplicated is super important! It gives the best sound quality possible. Lost Sound Tapes started by duplicating tapes at home, but after 10 or so releases, [we] decided it was too time consuming and difficult to maintain our equipment to keep the quality at an acceptable level.”
Unlike vinyl, which saw a 52% increase in 2014, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the state of the cassette industry looks like in terms of sales. Tapes are rarely tracked or bar-coded, and are often self-produced by bands and DIY labels that sell directly to fans online or at shows. Anecdotal evidence, however, points to a small, but engaged niche audience that is steadily growing. Marc Weinstein, founder of California’s fabled Amoeba Records, told Newsweek he’s seen tape sales increase substantially over the past few years, while Burger Records claims to have sold over 300,000 cassettes since its founding.
Craftsmanship and affordability are great, but how do cassettes really sound? Although the old cassette tape has a bit of reputation for being unreliable and sounding, well, shitty, the warm analogue and sometimes lo-fi sound perfectly suites the garage rock, punk, noise, experimental, and instrumental hip-hop artists who champion the format. “The hiss is back,” proclaims Manning. “Everyone hated it for decades and did everything in their power to get rid of it, but now people love to keep it in.”