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Cassette Tapes Are Almost Cool Again

Image via Frédéric Bisson/Flickr

Tapes are due for a midlife crisis. Invented in 1963 by Lou Ottens and later introduced at the Funkausstellung radio exhibition in Berlin, compact cassettes would go on to become the most prevalent form of prerecorded music from 1983, when they began outselling records, until 1991, when the CD became the most popular medium.

Tapes were undeniably an iconic part of music culture for several decades during the height of physical musical sales and distribution. And as the technology turns 50 this month, is anyone paying attention?

When it comes to romance, music critic Rob Sheffield writes in Love Is A Mixtape, cassettes "wipe the floor with MP3s." This is about neither superstition nor nostalgia, he adds.

Sheffield, 47, came of age in the heyday of the cassette and likely harbors an affinity for hiss-filled tapes that I, and others my age (I'm 21), can't relate to. Sure, I had a cassette player once. I was five, and my dad would load the thing with Stevie Ray Vaughan recordings. But by second grade I'd moved on to better and slicker things, namely Blink-182 CDs picked up at my local Newbury Comics. From then on, I never used that Sony cassette player again.

Still, that player and those tapes were both lightweight and portable, something skipping, scratched-up CDs didn't compete with well. This low profile and their ease of use made them a cost-effective distribution medium for labels and hopeful bands trying to get A&R love, as well as a chance for DIY home recording and music swaps among audiophiles and young lovers alike.

We're all familiar with the well-worn trope of using a blank cassette to record radio bootlegs and make mixtapes for loved ones, an act that coerced the British Phonographic Industry to make the 1980s slogan "Home Taping is Killing Music."

I have been an active mixtape maker and music gifter my whole life. Every girl I've had feelings for has received a playlist with a little bit of mushy indie rock with a hint of gangster rap to cut the sappiness. I've used CDs, Dropbox and more to send these mixes, but tapes never have made the cut out of fear that the chosen lady would not have any means to play a tape. Even now, as a handful of my friends work at labels and music companies, I have convinced myself that the cassette tape is too niche to present as a gift. Can they ever make a comeback?

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The cassette isn't quite shaking physical music these days, and it isn't enjoying the same sort of renaissance as vinyl, which has seen a 33.5 percent increase in sales in the first half of 2013 alone. But there is undoubtedly public interest in the format today, spurred by new tape labels popping up, a phenomenon Marc Hogan wrote about in a 2010 Pitchfork feature. Our colleagues at Noisey have said there’s a “resurgence” of tapes, even if most folks have yet to see it.

In September, there will be the first Cassette Store Day (an interesting title, seeing as there are few stores that just handle cassettes), which will include concerts and limited edition releases and reissues from bands like Fucked Up, Deerhunter and The Flaming Lips, as well as labels like California's Burger Records, Night People, Domino and my personal favorite 4AD.

The organizers' website claims that the cassette is "no longer the inadequate, younger sibling of vinyl and CD," and that it is "still going strong in the turbulent current musical climate." This may be true for die-hard music fans (who some may refer to as elitists), but sales and press coverage beg to differ.

Perhaps because they're pretty much nonexistent in the world of major labels and larger retailers, it's rather difficult to find out just how many cassettes are moving off the shelves. The Nielsen music industry report doesn't even give the cassette its own sales category. The analytics company lumps the format into a section called "Total Album Sales" that includes CDs, vinyl and digital album downloads.

According to NME, only 604 official units were sold in the UK last year (three times as many sales as the previous year), but most of the sales were of a single by British outfit Feeder. Good luck determining how many tapes niche labels like The Trilogy Tapes or Opal Tapes sold, as the plastic devices will surely continue to be ignored by Nielsen.

Digital Music News recently made a chart that tracks the decline of cassette sales, using shipment data from the RIAA. At the turn of the millennium, there were still over 70 million cassette tapes shipped throughout the US, while the site claims that number is essentially zero today. Based on DMN’s data, the cassette appears about as widespread as the irrelevant MiniDisc, which had just under 300 purchases in 2012.


Image via Digital Music News

These figures are not exactly accurate. Tape releases, even by established labels, are not always barcoded or quantified via traditional inventory, making it near impossible to figure out how many copies were sold unless one had access to each label’s PayPal or Bandcamp transactions.

Bands often make tapes themselves, do the artwork by hand, and sell them on tour (meaning cash only), again accounting for figures that the Nielsen Ratings could never properly measure. Plus, used or rare cassettes are often resold on eBay or Discogs, which do not count in these ratings systems, but which would still be indicative of their popularity.

Two people who know cassettes' renewed popularity well are Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard. The owners of Burger Records, which was once a bedroom project designed to spread the music of the owners’ own band, told me that their enterprise has since exponentially grown into a legitimate label with a considerable online presence as well as a store in California that sells cassettes, CD, vinyl, music ephemera and general art.

They told me their label has sold over 200,000 units since they started releasing cassettes in 2007. In 2012, they had around 200 releases, each consisting of 250-2000 tapes each, and nearly every single unit was sold. They have new releases almost every Tuesday, and have even caught the attention of bigger labels like Sub Pop and Universal, which allow Burger to release cassette copies of albums on the bigger guys’ rosters.

Bohrman described it as an “everyone wins” relationship, as the artists are able to release music on every type of outlet, “connecting the dots,” while expanding their audience and benefiting multiple labels at once. The growing label proves that cassettes are definitely still being sold, even if not at the same rate as any other music format.

Read the rest of the article over at Motherboard.

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