Last year, I found five brand-new tape recorders in my mom's garage. She's not a music fan, and doesn't know where they came from. Who listens to cassettes anymore? I thought, as I set one of the players in my trunk.
I still have a box of cassettes. Some just never made the conversion cut. Others are random acquisitions, like Stab Yourself in the Heart Because Love is Bullsh*t—a mixtape curated and hand-painted by NYC band Ancient History as supplemental press kit material. Or there's a collection of field recordings made by late local treasure Bob Moss in Los Angeles circa 2002. But mostly, they're old homemade tapes kept for sentimental reasons—mixtapes from old friends, recordings of juvenile prank calls or a memory of my father when I still liked him.
Lately the box is overflowing because, just like vinyl, tapes seem to be making a comeback. It's been happening since at least 2006, according to Steve Stepp of National Audio Company Inc.—the last of the large cassette-duplication and supply companies. Noticing an uptick in cassette interest from indie bands and labels, Stepp began buying up his competitors' duplication equipment, cartridges, tape, spools and cases as they gave up on the industry. A decade later, the Springfield, Mo.-based company handles "about 95 percent" of cassette duplications, from the tiniest independent labels to major-label conglomerate Universal Music Group. NAC even nurtures their competition, helping supply them in order to keep the format alive.
"We call it the Retro Revolution," Stepp tells City Weekly in a telephone interview.
It certainly seems like an insurrection, when many artists and labels decrease the amount of physical product runs, or eschew them altogether. Digital formats make it possible to have massive collections without worrying about where to store the music—and streaming all but eliminates the need for digital storage. So who even needs a physical product, unless, you know, they're special, like limited-edition CD packages, 180-gram vinyl ... or these tapes. But is it really an audio insurrection?
Adam Tye of SLC's Diabolical Records says that the cassette resurgence had its boom "two or three years ago," with boutique indie label Burger Records leading the charge. He's not saying cassettes are over. He simply figures they've peaked, but they'll stick around since they make sense for smaller bands "because of the low cost."
Then again, vinyl's still hot—and it's significantly more costly. Stepp reckons cassettes will remain popular for the same reason: "People want something they can hold in their hand, so they can read the lyrics and the liner notes." Plus, he says, cassettes offer the same analog quality as vinyl. And an advantage that cassettes have over wax is that "every play of an LP degrades it, whereas magnetic tape ... if you play it hundreds of times, you might only rub off some of the oxide."
Tye, whose shop specializes in vinyl but also sells cassettes, says vinyl's sound is superior, but "it is what it is. We're not huge gear heads or audiophiles." It boils down to the content, not format; it's the music that matters. And Tye is enthusiastic about local music in any form it takes, rattling off a list of favorite cassette releases by local labels Hel Audio ("phenomenal!") and City of Dis ("same!") as well as local bands like Choir Boy, Chalk and Wicked Bears. "Stag Hare released an incredible four-tape masterpiece that comes in an amazing package. It's stunning," he says.
But how's the demand? Stepp notes new manufacturers keep popping up, and orders are sufficient to keep NAC and its competitors busy. But from a retail perspective, Tye says the demand is "minimal. I think people like the idea a lot more than they like actually buying, collecting and listening to cassettes."
Whether or not cassettes are back is hard to say—and probably doesn't matter. Streaming is the future. But you can't deny the charm of an old box of cassettes that you hang onto because one day, for whatever reason, you might want to reach into that box and touch the past.