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Record Store Day 2018: Inside The Comeback Of Cassette Tapes
Streaming is saving the music industry and vinyl is in. So say the numbers, anyway. According to Nielsen Music, listeners racked up 400 billion streams in 2017, a catalyst for the industry's overall growth by more than 12 percent. Meanwhile, as album sales continue to plummet, vinyl LPs have made up a larger share of the market each year since 2005.
Though vinyl has made a record-setting (and much-publicized) comeback in recent years, it's still not music's fastest-growing physical medium. That honor belongs to … the cassette tape.
You read correctly: Cassette sales in the U.S. have more than quadrupled since 2011, with 174,000 tapes sold in the last year alone. Data from Nielsen Music points to a few obvious explanations. Cassette pressings for high-profile releases like Taylor Swift's Reputation, Jay-Z's 4:44, Lana Del Rey's Lust For Life, and Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtracks are selling well at retailers like Urban Outfitters, which also offers cassette players and recorders with USB adaptability.
Classic acts like AC/DC and the Wu-Tang Clan are also getting in on the trend, issuing small runs of classic albums — Back In Black and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), respectively — on cassette for 2018 Record Store Day.
There's even Cassette Store Day, a smaller, scrappier celebration dedicated exclusively to the tape format. Each October for the past five years, independent labels have made exclusive tapes by artists like Green Day and the White Stripes available at record shops around the world. Sean Bohrman, the founder of cassette-only label Burger Records and an organizer of the celebration in the U.S., says Cassette Store Day's underdog spirit keeps it relevant.
"It's about showing stores that they can sell cassettes," he says, "because there are still a ton of doubters out there who think it's a joke or that it's just nostalgia."
Despite its growing availability in stores, much of the cassette's resurgence has played out online. A majority of tapes were purchased on the web in 2016, many from vendors such as Burger directly. That's in stark contrast to vinyl, which consumers overwhelmingly buy at brick and mortar stores.
In fact, it's hard to overstate just how much the internet has empowered the cassette's most ardent fans. Maintaining the DIY ethos that characterized the tape trading movement in the 1980s and 1990s, today's cassette culture comprises an entire online ecosystem with its own forums and marketplaces in which bands, labels and collectors buy and sell tapes for a fraction of the cost of an LP.
"I love cassettes for the experiential part — for slowing down the experience a little bit and having more choice in the matter, and not letting the whole process be impulsive." — Ari Rosenschein
For artists, the draw is as much financial as it is sentimental. Cassettes are cheap to produce — around $1.50 per tape versus $5.80 per vinyl record — and they can be ordered, produced and shipped in a matter of days.
"With cassettes, there is a lower risk financially," says Ari Rosenschein, a Seattle multi-instrumentalist who performs as STAHV. He began issuing music on cassette in high school, and more recently released tapes under his own moniker and as a member of the band Teacher. The latter have sold out.
— Ari Rosenschein (@arirosenschein) February 2, 2018
"Pressing vinyl is extraordinarily expensive, and yet people are doing it like crazy because you can sell them," says Rosenschein. "With cassettes, you're not going to be able to sell them for as much, but they really don't cost very much to make. It's sort of like making pins versus making T-shirts."
Rosenschein also releases his music on LP and digitally so he treats cassettes like a "token" for hardcore fans. He orders them in small quantities, selling them at shows and online through platforms such as Bandcamp.
"There's a culture of people looking for these limited-edition pressings and weird, oddball runs of stuff," he says. "I've sold my cassettes on the idea that it's a very limited thing. … And there's a scarcity to it. Of the STAHV record, there's only 50 in the world, and they're kind of special."
Rosenschein is selling to people like Matt Mosz, a pizza delivery driver in the Chicago suburb of Naperville and a moderator of Reddit's r/cassetteculture forum. Mosz is 28 — young enough to have missed the cassette's heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s — and he claims nostalgia has little to do with his love of the format.
"I kinda grew up with [cassettes] being books on tape, and I had a handful of albums from high school," says Mosz. "But it was just albums that I got because they were cheap at the time and I was, like, 15 years old."
While working on his car, Mosz's mp3 player broke. A short time later, he stumbled upon a used bookstore that sold tapes for a quarter.
"They had a whole bunch of albums I really liked," he says. "In the matter of a summer, I went from having 10 cassettes in my collection to having 50. And it just spawned from there."
A selection of tapes in Matt Mosz's cassette collection
Photo: Courtesy of Matt Mosz
Seven years later, Mosz has amassed a collection of 500–600 tapes. While most of his early finds consisted of '90s rock (he's a big Foo Fighters and Nirvana fan), meeting other collectors online helped Mosz discover new music on cassette as well.
"I found out, 'Woah, new bands that are around now, that are just starting out, that are my age — they're putting music out on cassette," he says. "It's definitely opened up my range of music."
As a moderator of r/cassetteculture, Mosz now facilitates those connections himself, helping the forum's more than 12,000 members meet one another and share their hauls. On any given day, posts about fixing playback equipment, online sales and the merits of tape hiss litter the main page. Mosz has even organized semiregular mixtape swaps, where users create custom cassettes for one another that are full of songs the recipient might like.
"[It's] kind of the first moderating thing that I put into effect," he says. "You can get 10 to 20 people involved for it. … Some people really like the undertaking of making a mixtape, and will make three or four different mixes for different people, and participate that way to make sure everybody gets heard."
Mosz and Rosenschein say the extra time and work required to produce and play cassettes is part of their appeal. At a time when quickly sharing playlists has superseded recording tapes or burning CDs, cassettes are some of the last remaining musical objects that make a statement and encourage fans of all ages to listen to music with a purpose.
"The idea of people consuming music [via] this defiantly old-fashioned format is bigger than genre," Rosenschein says. "[You're seeing] this overarching group of people for whom an archaic format is not a deterrent, but actually is a positive. They're being a little rebellious in their choice of listening format."
"I love cassettes for the experiential part — for slowing down the experience a little bit and having more choice in the matter, and not letting the whole process be impulsive," he adds. "You have to be a little bit more conscious with cassettes."
(Julian Ring is a music journalist and curator. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NPR Music, The Wall Street Journal and Consequence of Sound, and he has written for the Recording Academy since 2010. At Pandora, Ring oversees music blogging and reviews independent submissions. He enjoys playing the guitar and hiking near his home in Oakland, Calif.)
(The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pandora Media, Inc., nor was the article written on Pandora Media, Inc.'s behalf.)