Are Audio Cassette Tapes Making a Comeback?

In an age where vast volumes of music can be downloaded instantly for free, surprisingly enough vinyl has witnessed a huge rebirth among audio collectors, with LP sales soaring by one-third in the United States in 2013 alone.

In an effort reminiscent of events to promote vinyl, dozens of record stores around the world on Saturday October 4th held a special Cassette Day to sell tapes ranging from the new album by rising indie band Foxygen to reissued classics by ironic rockers They Might Be Giants.

Few expect that cassettes -- notorious for getting jammed and unspooled -- will again become the dominant format as in the 1980s before compact discs took over. Last year, cassettes accounted for fewer than 0.1 percent of the 289 million albums sold in the United States, with CDs still topping digital downloads, according to Nielsen figures.

But Sean Bohrman of California's "Burger Records" saw a distinct advantage -- it costs his label a little over one dollar to produce each tape, while a vinyl run could cost thousands of dollars and take months. 

With the lower overhead, Burger Records has specialized in signing obscure garage-band acts for exclusive cassette tape releases. Sound crazy, maybe, but Burger Records sold over 350,000 tapes last year (making over a Million dollars profit)!

"You're much more likely to take a chance on music if it's just costing you $5 a tape," he said.

And while it is more unwieldy to select tracks on cassettes compared with CDs, MP3s or even vinyl, Bohrman said that is exactly the point. On cassettes, listeners are more likely to take in the whole album.

"A lot of people say that they don't have cassette players anymore, but most of them haven't even tried looking," Bohrman said.

"These are the people who let music come to them. You can sit and let Spotify or Soundcloud or Facebook tell you what to listen to, or you can work to find new music."

Even when stores in industrialized countries stopped stocking cassettes, the format remained vibrant in sub-Saharan Africa, meaning that afropop fans are often obliged to look for tapes.

Among genres, hip-hop and hardcore punk lend themselves well to cassettes, said Hope Silverman, manager of Rough Trade's New York store.

"If it's some big, pristine studio recording, it's not well served being on a cassette. That's why hardcore cassettes used to sell so well -- it's about that fuzzy, grungy thing," she said.

For cassette day, Silverman co-curated a two-tape set of emerging US and British acts who have a do-it-yourself feel. She said she was struck at the interest level both at her store and the original Rough Trade shops in London.

"It's not going to be like vinyl... yet; right now it's still a niche thing. But I think in time, you'll see more people doing it," she said.

She attributed some of interest in cassettes to romantic nostalgia, with music lovers who came of age in the 1980s or early 1990s fondly remembering making thematic mix tapes on old double-deck cassette players.

Chris Pantelino, 43, browsing through Rough Trade's special display of cassettes, decided to buy a tape by dream poppers Wild Nothing.

One issue -- he has no cassette player. Instead, he puts cassettes on display, while choosing CDs when he actually listens to the music.

"I just like to look at them. Maybe a big part of this is that it takes me back to my youth," he said. Jose Boyer, singer and guitarist of the New York band Las Rosas which just released a cassette, also had another explanation for tapes: "They're great for people like me and my friends who have older cars."


  1. I think they will make a comeback. The hipster crowd is sure buying old Sony Walkmans on eBay for major coin. It's weird that those things still even work! Here we goo, another hipster crap-shoot.