I’m old enough to have been an obsessive maker of mixtapes—actual analog compilations, housed in clunky plastic, that hissed along from Prince to the Pogues to the Pixies as the tape spooled. I don’t want to think about how many hours of my life I wasted hitting play and record before technology put a stop to that particular obsession. CDs, digital downloads and now YouTube and streaming services have made cassettes obsolete. Then obsoleter. And then into this odd relic so retrograde that my 12-year-old son would have no idea how to get a tape player to work. Cassettes: they’re gone. Right?
Well, not quite. As a slow drip of articles have reported over the last few years, cassettes aren’t quite dead yet. In fact, the story that cassettes are making a comeback has been repeated enough that it starts to seem like maybe they never left in the first place. In 2014, the National Audio Company sold 10 million audiocassettes—a 20 percent bump from 2013, and (since it’s bought out most of its competitors) the biggest year in its history.
As with LPs, cassette sales are driven not just by older folks who haven’t caught up, but by younger listeners who like analog sound, or novelty, or simply some sort of physical copy of their Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack to grip while they stream it online. NAC sold 11,500 Guardians soundtracks on cassette in 2014. Other successful cassettes included Skrillex’s Recess, which sold 1,000 copies in 2014, and Green Day’s Demolicious, which sold about the same. Metallica reissued their 1982 demo No Life ‘Til Leather on cassette only in 2015 as part of an ambitious anticipated reissue project. It was the best-selling Record Store Day release of the year, weighing in at 3,000 copies.
Of course, total Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack sales surpassed 1 million, so even though cassettes may be a trendy and profitable format, sales are still only around 1 percent of the total at most—close to a rounding error. While cassettes may serve as a marketing tool curiosity for the mainstream, though, they’re central to the business model of many smaller labels. Cassettes, those pioneers of pirating, have unexpectedly become an important funding source for small labels and artists.
The world of experimental music is especially hospitable to the format. K. Reinshagen, who’s behind the Los Angeles label Nostilevo, told me that “cassettes have certainly boomed over the past few years in particular genres of music, like major rock bands actually considering it a viable format again. But,” he added, “in the experimental-noise-electronic realm that I operate in, it seems like they’ve never really died down.” Savage Noise Production (a label known for bands like the ear-mutilating Macronympha) and Hanson Records released noise-drone-metal-electronica weirdness on cassette through the 1990s and 2000s, keeping the ugly, unwieldy, inconvenient format alive as a delivery system for ugly, unwieldy, inconvenient music.
ARIISK, Mode Bionics, newly released by Nostilevo
But the allure of cassette isn’t just in the history. It’s in the economics, according to Max Allison, who along with Doug Kaplan makes up half of Chicago’s electronica-nosie-experimental label Hausu Mountain. Digital is of course the most economical format to release, but most collectors want something less ephemeral. Of physical media, cassettes are the cheapest and quickest to produce, Allison said. “This enables us to release music with less of a financial risk than, say, having to spend over $1,000 and wait like six months for a short run of LPs. When we’re working in the neighborhood of like $1-3 per unit to manufacture tapes, and making 100-200 tapes, and we can have them in hand like 2-3 weeks after ordering them, that keeps costs down and also the number of releases way up. We can crank out music that we love, and offer a wider range of releases.”
Allison added that the low cost of each tape ($5-$8 usually) encourages customers to buy them in bundles and try new releases—a great model for experimental labels built around the thrill of discovery rather than on the upfront marketing of superstars. Nostilevo and Hausu Mountain are shockingly prolific labels, given that they’re one- and two-person operations. Over the last four years, Nostilevo has released some 40 albums; it has put out three new releases already this year. Hausu Mountain has its first three releases of the year out in early February.
Allison says that, to his ears, cassettes often sound better than LPs. Reinshagen, for his part, says that he loves albums and would press more if cost weren’t prohibitive. However you rate the various formats, though, there’s something about the do-it-yourself ethos of experimental labels that fits perfectly into a do-it-yourself format like cassettes. The throbbing static and feedback hiss of Granite Mask’s “Initiation” on Nostilevo might as well be turning tape hiss and warp into an aesthetic experience.
Similarly, the repetitive squonking of Andrew Bernstein’s Cult Appeal, on Hausu Mountain, mimics the cassette deck’s cycle of splice-record-rewind. Many of the albums on both labels have a lovely, clumsy hands-on appeal—taking music and dragging it across analog gears by hand or button punch.
It’s easy to dismiss a cassette purchase these days as a useless affectation. But in a sense, music itself isn’t a necessity: You don’t need to listen to Granite Mask any more than you need to own Andrew Bernstein’s cassette. Playing a Guardians of the Galaxy cassette on your tape deck can be an aesthetic experience, just like listening to a Guardians of the Galaxy digital file on an iPod can be an aesthetic experience. One isn’t any sillier or more sublime than the other.
So why have these outdated formats endured in the everything-is-free age of digital? “For the most part,” Reinshagen told me, “people want the physical object.” Hardly anyone buys just digital files, he said. Why would you when you can listen to streaming online? A tape, though, is something you can touch.
I probably won’t ever make an analog mixtape again myself. But it’s good to know that cassettes are still out there, putting new music together when someone presses play.