A new report says that sales of music on cassette are up 140 percent. The antiquated format is being embraced by everyone from indie musicians to Eminem and Justin Bieber. Fast Company's John Paul Titlow took a look at tape's unexpected revival, and why it's not solely about the throwback movement, people like how cassettes sound.
Just this recent holiday shopping season, U.S. artists and labels saw a 140% increase in tape sales over the previous year, according to a new music industry report from BuzzAngle. it was stated that over the course of 2016, Bandcamp saw its own 46% increase in cassette sales, according to a spokesperson for the music service. Also last year, the National Audio Company—the largest cassette tape manufacturer in the U.S.—saw a 20% increase in its commercial tape duplication business (this doesn't include blank tapes or audiobooks), according to a company spokesperson. This continues an upward-sloping trend for the Missouri-based company, which did more business in 2014 than at any other previous point since its factory opened in 1969.
And while it remains a small piece of the pie—too small for Nielsen to care enough to track independently of other music formats—the seemingly counter-intuitive revival of cassettes shows no sign of slowing down, even as streaming music subscriptions explode. But why?
As tempting as it may be to dismiss cassettes as another display of being an analog hipster, the mini-trend has very real, practical benefits for budding artists like Molholt, who releases music on a tape-only label called Endless Daze. For one thing, they scratch a simple economic itch. For about $2 apiece, tapes can be produced in small quantities much more quickly than vinyl records, whose own resurgence has slammed pressing plants with so much demand that a new record can take up to six months to turn around. And unlike with vinyl, musicians can produce new copies of cassettes in their apartment in a pinch.
""You can’t quite put your finger on it. But they’re sort of fun. They’re weird little tchotchkes.""
For less established artists, tapes are also a lower-risk investment than vinyl: If your debut EP doesn't sell, you're not stuck sitting on a heavy box of vinyl that took over a thousand bucks and half a year to produce.
Tapes allow musicians an affordable way to sell their work to fans—usually for about five bucks apiece—and help cover their costs on the road in an age when streaming royalty checks will barely fill up the gas tank. They let fans support their favorite artists without the $25 commitment of vinyl or some other trinket emblazoned with the band’s logo. It may seem odd given the scarcity of cassette players in our lives, but if nothing else, a rectangular hunk of plastic can serve as a convenient vehicle for a free digital download of the album. Plus, it’s a souvenir.
"For the fans, there’s a certain coolness about tapes," says J. Edward Keyes, Bandcamp’s editorial director and a longtime music journalist, who has amassed close to 500 cassettes. "You can’t quite put your finger on it. But they’re sort of fun. They’re weird little tchotchkes."
Indeed, the appeal of tapes has more to do with collectors and nostalgia than it does with convenience or sound quality. Who in 2017, doesn't want to own a Whitesnake, Sammy Hagar or AC/DC cassette? In fact, the lower audio fidelity of tapes is seldom seen as a disadvantage.
A recent look at Ebay shows more cassette tapes being offered that at any point over the last 20 or more years.
"Tapes were biggest mostly in noise and hardcore, where the fact that they were degraded was almost kind of an asset," says Keyes. "Because it made it sound muddier and screwed with the dynamics and the sound in an interesting way."
Molholt, for one, loves the sound of tapes. "I feel like everyone is obsessed with super high fidelity but I like it when things are warm and warbly," he says.