Audio Cassette Tapes Are Back

Mike Ramsey
April 18, 2019 - 6:04 pm

CHICAGO — Stop, rewind: Audio cassette tapes have not had their final ejection from our lives.

The analog format that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s -- before being displaced by the compact disc and the digital download -- has made a measurable comeback in recent years. 

Thanks are partly due to independent record labels, which use cassette tapes as an inexpensive way to distribute a band’s music. Chicago's Maximum Pelt, for example, has released about 120 titles over the past 10 years, mostly on cassette. 

"Cassettes are the format that speak to me the most," says the label's founder, a North Side native who goes by the moniker Magic Ian. "I'm 30 years old. I'm right on the tail end of the cassette generation moving into the CD and digital generation. I did buy CDs as a kid, but cassettes never went away for me."

Maximum Pelt was among the local music outfits at a recent trade show at Empty Bottle in Ukranian Village. Cassette tapes with imaginatively designed "J cards" (the inserts that serve as miniature album covers) dominated the merchandise, but many participants had LP versions of at least some of their acts. Although vinyl is considered the gold analog standard among audiophiles, the waiting time to get a record pressed can be months. By comparison, cassette tapes take weeks, and the cost is hard to beat: $2 or $3 per unit, which can then be sold for $5 or $6 each.

"Vinyl records can be a little bit more of a commitment," said Karissa Talanian, 28, who runs Eye Vybe Records in Chicago. "I've done three big vinyl releases in the last couple of years, and one did really well. The other two -- I'm still sitting on a lot of copies."

It's not just the independents buying into tape. Major labels and artists also have embraced the trend, insisting on cassette runs for some releases, notes Scott Pollack, president of New York-based A to Z Media, which works with musical artists.  

“I think there’s a certain kind of nostalgic gimmickry or wistfulness to it that people are responding to,” Pollack says. “It’s just something fun and a little bit unique, and again, it’s physical. It’s drawing on the long-tail appeal of what we’re seeing with vinyl. I think the cassette is just a smaller outgrowth of that.”

A little perspective: Consumers bought 246 million cassettes in 1994, a far cry from today’s numbers, according to Billboard. Nonetheless, cassette sales rose from 178,000 in 2017 to 219,000 last year. This is a major spike compared to the 50,000 cassettes sold in 2014.

Worldwide, there are two magnetic tape suppliers of note that feed the cassette mini-revolution. One company, called Mulann, is in France. The other, National Audio Cassette, is in Springfield, Missouri, and does business with 3,500 labels worldwide, says company president Steve Stepp.

After buying audio tape from suppliers for decades, the family business began manufacturing its own at the beginning of 2019 after its South Korean source closed. Now, with refurbished vintage equipment, NAC produces 5 million feet of tape per day, Stepp says. The ribbon is spooled inside the rectangular plastic cartridges, or "shells," that consumers pop into tape players (in case you're wondering: Yes, manufacturers are catching onto the cassette trend and producing tape players again).

It's been an interesting journey for Stepp, who's 71, and his 50-year-old company, which, in a previous era, sold reel-to-reel tapes to radio stations like Chicago's WBBM Newsradio. He has witnessed the rise and fall -- and resurrection -- of audiocassettes and calls it an "amazing turnabout." In the lean years, he said, the format stayed alive through books-on-tape products.

Asked to explain today's resurgence, Stepp credits the under-35 crowd.

“They’re people who were raised with MP3s and earbuds," Stepp says. "If you’ve been raised thinking that’s what music sounds like, and suddenly you hear analog music with harmonics over a nice speaker, you think, ‘Wow, music can sound like that?'"

Magic Ian, one of the Chicago indie label owners, needs no convincing. 

"Anybody who decided they wanted to start a cassette label, it's something they could afford to do with just a couple hundred bucks," he says. "It really cements the idea that music is for everybody. It's not this elitist, unattainable thing."

Related: Made In Chicago: Smashed Plastic Record Pressing