Music News & Reviews

Dust off the boombox, cassettes are having a comeback

Cassettes are undergoing a kind of renaissance that’s driven both by nostalgia and the simple economics of their low price. While cassettes have long been embraced by punk bands and others with a “do it yourself” aesthetic, even major recording artists are once again going Walkman-friendly by releasing music on cassette.
Cassettes are undergoing a kind of renaissance that’s driven both by nostalgia and the simple economics of their low price. While cassettes have long been embraced by punk bands and others with a “do it yourself” aesthetic, even major recording artists are once again going Walkman-friendly by releasing music on cassette.

Bust out that dusty old boombox and unearth the Walkman buried in the garage. Just when you thought vinyl records were the coolest old-school music format to collect, cassettes are making a comeback in the age of all-things digital.

That’s right, cassettes – those rectangle-shaped cases of recorded music that rekindle images of car stereos from the Reagan era. Cassettes are undergoing a kind of renaissance that’s driven both by nostalgia and the simple economics of their low price. While cassettes have long been embraced by punk bands and others with a “do it yourself” aesthetic, even major recording artists are once again going Walkman-friendly by releasing music on cassette.

Metallica recently released its 1982 demo tape, “No Life ’til Leather,” as a limited-edition cassette during national Record Store Day in April. Alternative-rock favorite Weezer offered its latest album, “Everything Will Be Alright in the End,” in cassette format through Burger Records of Southern California. Burger Records, which is issuing a cassette release for the Sacramento band Dog Party, will also be rereleasing Green Day’s first three albums on cassette, a nod to the group’s scrappy years on the punk scene.

The owners of Burger Records, Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, say they’ve pressed more than 350,000 cassettes over the past eight years.

“It’s been a slow build, one cassette at a time,” said Rickard. “But the hand-held thing is cool. They’re portable; you can put them in your pocket and trade with your friends. It’s a physical thing forever.”

The cassette might still seem like an artifact, the equivalent of a rotary phone or VHS tape, in the digital age. A 16-gigabyte iPhone, which easily fits in a back pocket, can hold more than 7,000 songs – hundreds of times the storage space compared to a standard 90-minute cassette.

But rewind to the late 1980s and cassette tapes were everywhere, stuffed in car glove boxes and portable stereo players. By 1990, more than 400 million cassettes were shipped annually; releasing a major album on this format was a given. Yet, like reel-to-reel tape and even vinyl records, cassettes were rendered obsolete by emerging technology, including the rise of CDs. By the time MP3s and other digital forms of music became omnipresent in the early 2000s, cassettes had essentially joined the computer floppy disk in the great trash heap in the sky.

But in some circles, the cassette tape never quite went away.

Matt Hargrove of West Sacramento still has stacks of cassettes, and not just as novelty conversation pieces. He’s an avid cyclist who also DJs local cyclocross events, and when there isn’t enough time or space to set up turntables, Hargrove busts out a boombox. He says the magnetic tape cassettes have come out for events about 10 times in the last three months, blasting a soundtrack from The Jam, Sacramento’s own Kai Kln and other bands.

“People love it,” said Hargrove. “They love looking at all the cassettes and talk about all the cassettes they used to have. Then you have some of the younger folks who’ve never seen a cassette before. It’s kind of funny.”

Cassettes still occupy a tiny niche of the recorded music market, though their numbers have risen in recent years. According to Nielsen, 50,000 albums on cassettes were sold in 2014. That number dipped from 60,000 albums on cassette sold in 2013, but sales have risen since 2010, when only 10,000 cassettes were sold. The overall numbers for cassette sales are considered to be higher, given that sales data from many mom-and-pop record shops aren’t reported to Nielsen. Many cassettes sold at shows and by other means also aren’t tabulated.

Vinyl continues to rule in terms of old-school music formats. About 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in 2014, a 51.8 percent increase over the previous year, according to Nielsen.

But for those seeking albums on a budget, it’s tough to beat cassettes. Over at Phono Select Records, the independently owned record store on the edge of Sacramento’s Curtis Park, scores of cassettes can be had for as little as 99 cents each. Vinyl is generally more expensive by comparison, where even a used, dog-eared copy of Led Zeppelin’s first album can fetch $12 or more.

Cassettes have their collectors’ market, too. That $10 Metallica cassette released in April on Record Store Day now fetches around $30 on eBay. An original 1984 cassette of Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” can cost a collector upward of $40. Rare thrash metal cassettes from the 1980s and vintage rap demos on cassette also are coveted.

“The interest in cassettes is definitely going up,” said Dal Basi, owner of Phono Select. “A lot of young people are buying cars that still have tape players. Then there’s the serious collectors who want to have that original Metallica cassette. But I think a lot of it is economics. Let’s face it: They’re cheap; you can place them in your car and they look cool, and they won’t scratch.”

The cost-effectiveness of cassettes can also be appealing to bands and small labels. While vinyl may be an overall more preferred format compared to cassettes, the price of pressing vinyl can be prohibitive for many bands. According to Bohrman, an album on cassette costs about $1 to $1.25 to press, which is then sold for $5 or $6. Compare that to a run of 300 vinyl records with full album art, which can cost upward of $10 each to press.

“It makes it easy to take a chance on bands,” said Bohrman, about the low cost of producing cassettes. “For us, it’s an easy way to get music out, and the price is affordable. It’s tangible; they’re instantly collectable, and it’s fun stuff.”

Unlike vinyl, the cassette format isn’t touted as sounding better or “warmer” than MP3s or CDs. But there’s still a tactile experience with cassettes that’s missing in the binary world of digital music. Making a personalized mixtape via cassettes goes far beyond the autopilot-like experience of creating an iTunes or Spotify playlist, where mixes can be created with a few drags of the mouse.

“I recently made my first mixtape in years, and it was awesome,” said Hargrove. “I’d have to just sit there and actually listen to the song play, then hover over the tape deck when it was about to end and get ready to hit ‘pause.’ Then I’d take the record off and put another on. It took me three hours to do, but it was worth every minute. It was fun.”

The catch with vintage cassettes is they can deteriorate over time. Some can develop white dust from chemical breakdowns. Like a bottle of wine, cassettes should be stored in a dark place without wide temperature swings for the longest shelf life.

“I’ve even opened sealed cassettes (that were stored long term) that don’t sound right,” said Basi. “People don’t understand that you don’t have to do anything to a cassette for it to degrade. It’s a delicate format. One bad run through a cassette player and the heads aren’t aligned, you get that pinch in the tape and a weird squeak from there on out.”

The other quirk is that finding blank cassettes for making mixtapes can be tough in the Sacramento area. Phono Select and Armadillo Music in Davis are among the rare local shops that carry sealed blank cassettes.

But the humble, often neglected cassette refuses to die. The third annual Cassette Store Day is slated for the fall, and similar to Record Store Day, will feature commemorative and collectable albums on cassette. Better keep the boombox and some size D batteries on standby.

“Cassette Day is a way to show distributors that they can take more chances on carrying them,” said Rickard. “More labels have started doing them, and now it’s a regular thing.”

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