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Cassette Culture — return of the boombox?

National Audio Co. finds itself the last manufacturer of cassette tapes in the U.S. and business is surprisingly booming.
By Amy Marie Slocum|
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“As you know, during the 1990s the CD ran the audio cassette out of the music market.” Steve Stepp drawls over the phone from his office at National Audio Co. in Springfield, Missouri. He’s indulging me with the now well-worn story of how his company went from marketing blank cassettes in 1969 to manufacturing them through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s to surviving the rise of the CD and finding themselves the only audio cassette manufacturer in the United States, sitting atop an inconceivably growing industry. 

Between 2009 and 2011 just 86,000 albums on cassette were sold in the U.S., but last year that number jumped to 174,000, thanks in part to a nostalgia-based trend driven by soundtracks to Guardians of the Galaxy and Stranger Things as well as major albums like Kanye West’s Yeezus and Nirvana’s Nevermind seeing re-releases. Audio cassettes are now sold at Urban Outfitters alongside disposable cameras and bluetooth speakers that look like lunch pails. While Stepp welcomes the large orders that major labels are making these days, he is the first to acknowledge that cassettes wouldn’t be anywhere without indie music. “The independent bands and record labels are the people who began the whole return to the audio cassette for music,” Stepps asserts. “They were able to put out short run releases in 30 days time—which is our turn around—and get back on the market and have their music heard. It was their success that lead the major brands to say, ‘Maybe we should take another look at the audio cassette for a music medium’ and that’s what really happened.” 

One indie label that has built their business on the cassette is Burger Records in Orange County, California. A bastion of what has been termed “fourth-wave garage rock” the label has brought up bands like Cherry Glazerr, The Garden, and Together Pangea. Their headquarters in a Fullerton strip mall serves as a used record store, event space, and crash pad as well as a retail outlet for their cassette releases, most of which sell for $5.99. Asked why he initially invested in the medium, Burger co-founder Sean Bohrman tells me, “We decided to start making tapes in 2007 because all of our friends were making amazing albums and no one was putting out the tape.” As to why he thinks the medium has caught on in the under 30 demographic, Bohrman points to their accessible price point and the ability to get a physical album out quickly, which comes in handy for independent bands who make most of their money on the road from merch sales rather than from digital downloads.

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Proponents of the tape have watched the rise of vinyl with hope. Last year 169.1 million physical albums were sold, 14.3 million of those albums were vinyl, or just over 8%. Conversely, cassettes took just one tenth percent of all album sales in 2017, and just 0.17% of physical album sales in that year. Despite their negligible market share, major labels are investing in cassettes as a way to bolster profit margins. Steve Stepp tells me, “as the pirating and the downloading and the theft of the digital domain has become just outrageous, [major labels] are looking for something that’s physical, that you can sell, that you can actually make money on.” 

Perhaps the most curious part of the cassette puzzle is that their target audience is not old enough to have a memory of their heyday. When asked what the average profile of their cassette customer is, Bohrman doesn’t hesitate. “I would say mostly people in their 20s” he says. Speculating on why people born at the turn of the century would get into a format that was pronounced dead before they were born, Bohrman points to the experience of interacting with a physical object, and the increasing rarity of offline experiences. “It’s a viable physical format,” he says, “which is needed, wanted, and requested in this digital age we live in.”

“Once everyone transitioned to CDs and digital media players, albums lost an important dimension of complexity.”

Fellow cassette entrepreneurs Fuzzoscope, based in San Francisco, echo the sentiment. Selling their releases online, Fuzzoscope states that it “functions as a platform for releasing and archiving audible artifacts as well as historically documenting the recordings of artists known and unknown.” Founded by friends Christian Riechert and Jared Pittack, the label is housed under the umbrella of Allied Forces Press, a publishing company run by Pittack. Releases skew towards the ambient and lo-fi—thus the titular fuzz—and everything is available to stream for free on their website, download for whatever you’re willing to pay, or buy on cassette for $12 and sometimes on vinyl for $20. Speculating what it is about the experience of the cassette that still draws listeners, Riechert points to the way they are composed. “Cassette tapes were one of the final audio formats to have this concept of Side A and Side B in place,” he says. “Once everyone transitioned to CDs and digital media players, albums lost an important dimension of complexity.”

Looking towards the future, Steve Stepp is bullish. Three years ago his South Korean magnetic tape supplier, Saehan Media, closed that side of their business. National Audio Co. bought everything they had, which has lasted them this long, but they are running out fast, so last year they invested in the machinery to produce tape themselves. Stepp anticipates that they’ll be producing 20,000 feet of tape per minute at full production, making them one of two or three magnetic tape suppliers in the world. “We’ll expand to meet the market, and that’s our intent.” Pausing for a moment Stepp adds, “We hope to be here from now on. No reason we shouldn’t be.”

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