I have a confession. I did not believe in the cassette tape revolution.
I first heard about the tape comeback shortly after launching Get It On Vinyl. At that time so many people, including myself, were willing to chalk it up to a hipster movement, something the trend seekers had sought out after vinyl worked its way back into the mainstream.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Now, in my defense I never disliked cassettes. Heck, I had grown up with them. As a kid who couldn’t afford the shiny new CD’s everyone was buying, I was a big fan of scooping up tapes wherever I could, whether that be at the goodwill, a shoebox full from a garage sale, or pilfering my older sisters’ collection when she made the jump to CD’s. I spent plenty of afternoons recording radio broadcasts, dubbing over my fathers trashed business training tapes. All I needed was some scotch tape and a dual cassette deck and I was a full-fledged bootleg label. When I did get my hands on a new blank tape, it was pure gold. I painstakingly hand wrote the song titles, delicately applied all the provided stickers, and proudly displayed them in my or my travel case that I carried with my Walkman. Rather than drool with envy over my friends’ CD players, I would spend afternoons copying their Green Day and Nine Inch Nails collections to tape.
When I finally did get my first CD player, it contained a dual cassette deck, although for the life of me I don’t think it was ever used. Once that hit the landfill, I had no interest in a cassette deck until I found a matching one for my newly built Technics system. It was for aesthetics more than practicality, a reason for more RCA cords and shelf space. While my stereo has been re-configured several times since then, I never dumped the cassette deck. Sure, it found its way to the storage closet more than once, I never could bring myself to throw it out. Maybe it was because it served as the format of my first music collection. Maybe I was convinced I would find music on cassette that I would never be able to obtain on vinyl or digital. I don’t know why I held onto it, but I can guarantee it was never because I foresaw a resurgence on the horizon.
For quite a while, I continued to downplay the cassette revival. I used the same arguments over and over, explaining how cassette sound quality pathetic, the lack of availability, the limitations of the format and its niche aspects. Now to be clear, I appreciated that there was renewed interest in the format. I think any interest in physical music, no matter what format, is a step in the right direction. I was excited to hear about new releases, especially major labels, finding their way to cassette. It just simply didn’t interest me, and for the life of me I could not find the appeal.
It was only recently that I completely changed my mind. After doing some research, I was surprised to hear just how big the format has comeback. In 2016, cassette sales grew 140% from the previous year. Bandcamp even reported a 46% jump in cassette sales. However, it’s important to note that the only reported number of cassette sales in 2016 was 129,000. The key word here is reported. See, much like it brother the vinyl record, actual sales are grossly under reported. Only tracking SoundScan reporting stores, the industry simply cannot make an adequate report on the sales numbers. Most cassette releases, are extremely limited, sold through various online sites and small labels fiercely dedicated to the format. Asks the pros at Burger Records and Gnar Tapes and they are bound to tell you the same. It’s hard to believe that those numbers are accurate when National Audio Company, the largest cassette manufacturer in America, regularly pumps out 100,000 tapes a day and major studios like Sony and Disney have jumped on board and indie-leaders Sub Pop release most of their new releases on cassette.
So why have cassettes seen such a revival? For the exact same reason vinyl has. It’s tangible, collectable, nostalgic, and sweet analog. It requires attention, flipping, touching and shelf space. It’s part of a collection. At the same time, many of the arguments against it are the same that people shout when trashing vinyl. Sound quality? Much like a dirty record on a cheap turntable, all music can sound terrible when crappy source material is played on bad equipment. While I am not yet experienced in the technical aspects, I have heard quality tape played on high end decks and the results are exceptional, even comparable to some LP pressings.
Much like LP’s, tapes taken care of properly will last for decades, although long term they are more susceptible to the elements and wear.
However, cassettes have gotten a big boost for one reason. Cost. They are cheap to and easy to manufacture. Unlike the high costs that go into producing vinyl, cassettes can be produced for cents, offering not only a physical memento and band merch tables but fat profit margins at an affordable price to the consumer. While LP plants are backlogged for months and choked up with meaningless re-issues while the indie artists wait, cassettes are being produced in runs as small as 100 and the tens of thousands, and in record time. Just like turntables, cassette decks are being snatched off the goodwill shelves and thrown back into service.
Whether the cassette comeback will be similar to the vinyl revival (it’s got a long, long way to go) remains to be seen. Is it important? Yes! Physical music, no matter what the format, is proving its ability to co-exist with the digital standard. Bands and labels, both indie and corporate, are creating tangible items that can be enjoyed for generations. We are building collections again, using more chords, flipping tapes and folding up J cards. If you don’t like it, fine. It’s your loss, I was gonna make you a sweet mix tape.