Fast Forward with Cassette Tapes

by Steven Melendez ; Updated June 22, 2017

Cassette tapes are making a comeback.

The audio format is perhaps best associated with the 1980s heyday of the Sony Walkman, which, along with in-car tape decks, first enabled millions of music fans to listen to their favorite tunes on the go. But by the 1990s, cassettes had lost market share to the next shiny new thing – thin, durable, ultraportable compact discs.

CDs themselves dominated the music scene until the rise of purely digital sound in the early 2000s, when devices like Apple’s iPod let listeners carry entire collections of music in their pockets. Within a few years, critics were proclaiming that music on physical media – the kind you buy at the record store or local big box chain – was dead.

But in recent years, first vinyl records and now cassettes have come back from the grave, with cassette sales reportedly up 76% from 2015 to 2016, and artists like The Weeknd and Justin Bieber releasing albums in the format. And experts say it’s not that aging baby boomers and Generation X’ers are buying tapes out of nostalgia. Teens and young adults from the MP3 generation have rediscovered the format for a number of reasons, including sound quality, cost, convenience and collectibility.

“For some people I’m sure it’s nostalgic, but for a lot of people it’s just a cheap, easy way to listen to new music,” says Sean Bohrman, cofounder of Burger Records, a Los Angeles-area record label that’s released more than 1,000 recordings on cassette in the past decade.

That Analog Sound

Digital sound, where audio signals are represented by a series of numbers processed by a computer chip, dominate today’s world. But some people just prefer the sound of analog recordings, which represent sound physically, like with grooves on a record or the magnetic field stored on the tape in a cassette, saying it captures more of the nuances of a song.

“The world is analog, your ears are analog,” says Steve Stepp, the president of National Audio Company, a leading cassette manufacturer that Stepp says shipped about 20 million cassettes last year.

And a generation raised on digital tunes has come to appreciate the analog sound of vinyl and cassette tapes, Stepp says.

Low Cost for Bands and Fans

But while vinyl records can look nice laid out on a living room shelf, they’re more expensive and take longer to produce than cassettes, Stepp says. It might take six months to a year to put together a small run of a record on vinyl, while cassette tapes can often be put together within a month and at lower cost, he says.

That’s especially important for up-and-coming bands, who often want to make a few recordings to sell at concerts, and their fans. Concertgoers looking to buy something to take home from a show are often choosing between $30 shirts, $40 vinyl albums or $5 tapes, says Bohrman – and for listeners on a budget, that can be a big deciding factor.

Collect ‘Em All (And Carry ‘Em Around)

It’s hard to really collect digital music, especially in the era of streaming. And some music fans just prefer to have something they can hold in their hands and show off to their friends.

Vinyl records can fit that bill, but they’re ultimately not that convenient for everyday listening – you can’t listen to a record in your car or on the bus, or while going for a jog. But cassettes still feature the distinctive album art and liner notes with lyrics or other information that fans want, in a form factor that’s still portable.

That hipness and convenience factor has brought cassettes back to major stores like youth-focused chain Urban Outfitters, which even sells some exclusive cassette releases, and motivated major record companies to release music on tape. Cassette players are also making a comeback, with new models from major electronics manufacturers – Burger Records is even releasing its own limited-edition player.

Of course, tapes may have also gotten a boost from a recent Hollywood appearance – the bestselling cassette of 2016 was the soundtrack to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which features a cassette tape in its plot.

About the Author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist with a background in technology. He has written for a variety of publications and was awarded the Knight Foundation scholarship to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.