Cassettes Are Back, As 'Dead' Media Won't Die

Dan Hyman
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Two years ago, something unexpected happened: Musical artists and record labels started ramping up their cassette tape requests in a major way.

Steve Stepp likes to tell people his company is still around after 45 years thanks to his stupidity and stubbornness. As the owner of family-run National Audio Company, the last business to manufacture audio cassette tapes on a massive scale, the lifelong Springfield, Mo., resident weathered nearly two decades of people telling him his product was obsolete. He didn’t budge: Stepp bought up all his competitors’ equipment, continued to produce spoken-word audiobooks, Bibles and blank cassettes and hoped for the best.

Two years ago, something unexpected happened: Musical artists and record labels started ramping up their cassette tape requests in a major way. Today National Audio’s business is booming; it’s manufacturing 250 to 350 titles at any given time — a 33 percent increase from 2014 — and working on five to 10 releases a week alone for major record label conglomerate Universal Music Group.

Piggybacking off the recent surge in demand for 12-inch vinyl records, music fans and artists alike are gravitating back to media formats once considered dead, such as cassettes and seven-inch records (commonly known as 45s). To that end, Chicago-based retailers, including Reckless Records and Dusty Groove, have seen noticeable increases in cassette and seven-inch vinyl sales — a trend longtime Reckless manager Melissa Grubbs believes is due to repopularized vinyl LPs increasing in price.

“New records are very expensive now so you can still get something retro and cool in the form of a cassette for, say, $1.99,” she says. Reckless largely stocks cassettes from smaller independent labels, while Dusty Groove owner Rick Wojcik says most of the cassettes sold at his store are vintage, with an emphasis on soul and hip-hop.

“It’s most definitely real,” Michael Kurtz, co-founder of Record Store Day, an annual celebration of old-school audio formats, says of the dead media resurgence, adding the two biggest sellers in the history of Record Store Day were cassettes — a mixtape for the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film and Metallica’s “No Life ‘Til Leather.”

Seven-inch records are also starting to sell in large numbers. “When we started Record Store Day we thought no one would buy seven-inchers,” says Kurtz, who likens the 45 to “a postcard for an artist to send to fans. “But then they sold out. The fans loved it. So we thought, ‘Let’s do some more!’ “ In the first half of 2015, according to the most recent RIAA Shipment and Revenue Statistics report, approximately 400,000 vinyl singles were shipped to retailers, a nearly 30 percent increase from the same period the previous year. While still largely concentrated around Record Store Day, artists as diverse as David Bowie, A$AP Rocky, and Fall Out Boy have released seven-inch vinyl in recent times.

But what is driving artists and fans back to these vintage formats? For singer and frontman of hardcore punk band Black Flag, Henry Rollins, the appeal of a seven-inch, he says, has always and continues to thrive in that it allows a snapshot of a band’s current goings-on. Groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s commonly put out seven-inch records to promote their new single. Black Flag, formed in 1980, was no different. The punk genre, he explains, gravitated toward the format for its DIY sensibility.

“Many of these bands were not looking for a career, so the short-and-to-the-point format of the single was a good way to go,” Rollins says, recalling an early deal Black Flag made with Southern California record store chain Licorice Pizza to distribute its vinyl singles. “Hopefully when you went to the store to get your free record post-show, you might pick up the ‘Damaged’ album by the band as well.”

Contemporary musicians such as hip-hop beatmaker DJ Harrison, who released his recent “Songs From The Black Water” EP exclusively on cassette, prefer tapes for their compressed sound. “Everything sits in the right place in the mix when recording to tape,” he offers. Equally as important to Harrison is the experience of buying a physical product, something increasingly marginalized in the digital age. “It’s a whole all-around experience,” he says of obtaining a cassette. The album art, he adds, “is just as much of a worthy product as the music.”

Independent record labels focused on cassettes are, not surprisingly, also on the rise. Chicago-based labels including Plustapes and Already Dead Tapes release several offerings per month, the latter pricing product at $5 each. “There were a lot of tape labels six years ago when we started the label but it has grown exponentially to the point where now there’s constantly new tape labels popping up,” says Already Dead co-founder Joshua Tabbia. “Within the last three years it seems like it has just exploded.”

As fans clamor for vinyl singles and cassettes, often only available in limited pressings, audio equipment companies and major record labels alike have taken notice: St. Louis-based DPI, Inc. recently released a new mobile cassette player. Amazon reported that its top-selling home audio product of 2015 was a Jensen three-speed stereo turntable that plays 33, 45 and 78 RPM records, and starting in 2013, Warner Music Group began releasing limited-edition seven-inch vinyl as part of its Side By Side series on which artists cover each other’s music. There’s even a cassettes page at the website of Urban Outfitters.

Side By Side creator and WMG employee James Lockwood says seven-inch records remain largely “for the completionist and the collector,” but he believes the overall vinyl resurgence has created a marketplace where seven-inch records can fulfill a genuine consumer desire. What’s perhaps most surprising is that the under-35 demographic, for whom these formats were around for at best a sliver of their youth, is driving the resurgence of cassettes and seven-inch vinyl. “It’s definitely much more than the niche piece it once might have been,” Lockwood says. “Before the vinyl resurgence there was such a streamlined marketplace that there wasn’t the market for something cool like this.”

Many insist seven-inch records and cassettes are still more of a promotional tool — a way to extend an artist’s release campaign — rather than a true driver of revenue. The cost of manufacturing a seven-inch, says Robb Nansel, co-founder of Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records, home to bands such as Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos, often discourages labels and artists from producing them on a large scale. “We usually just break even on them,” says Nansel. “It’s certainly more of a marketing tool to give you another talking point about your artist.”

Others like Stepp and Rollins however remain optimistic about the future of media formats that were once given a death sentence. Rollins says he still buys more seven-inch singles than any other form of audio. “I think it’s a great format,” he says. “Bands can give you a minute-to-minute view to their development. They sound great and when there’s colored vinyl and limited pressings that makes it fun to go to the record store. That kind of thing has never lost its appeal to me.”

Ask Stepp if he’s surprised by the return to analog audio formats and he’ll offer a blunt assessment. “A whole generation has been listening to compressed files,” he says by way of an explanation for his company’s recent success, “and then you finally hear a good analog recording. There really is no comparison.”

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