Article and photos by Stephanie Kotsikonas
Constantly rewinding. Praying that the thin brown, reflective strip holding your favorite album doesn’t get caught in and pulled by the spokes of your boombox. Having to deal with the weird sounds that came from overplaying.
Listening to cassettes was nothing short of nerve-wracking in the decades before CDs or iTunes, so when the National Audio Company, the largest cassette manufacturer in the country, reported that its sales were continually increasing, it’s hard to believe music consumers would take a daunting trip back in time with the more convenient and accessible options available to them.
National Audio Company sold more than 10 million tapes in 2014 — its bestselling year since it opened in 1969. “Since about 2008-09 we’ve seen the uprising of the audio cassette,” the company’s president, Steve Stepp, said in a telephone interview. “Between 2014 and 2015, we saw a 31% increase, which is pretty substantial.” Among the factors that the company credits are nostalgia, the broader retro movement with many things cultural, and possibly the many men who drive older cars with cassette players.
Some punk and indy bands have fans who are big on cassettes, whether driven by nostalgia, irony or a mix of both. At their concerts, cassettes are sold and often generate a frenzy among fans in the audience.
Different genres of music can still be found on cassettes at many music shops.
However, sales at local music shops in New York City, places known for trendy and nostalgic purchases like vinyl records, tell a different story. Bleecker Street Records’ small collection of tapes, which consists mainly of trance music, with a copy of Janis Joplin’s Pearl thrown in, sits untouched in the basement. Customers sift through rows of jazz, country and blues vinyl with not even a look in the direction of the black crate full of cassettes.
“Tapes are a very minor affair,” said Bleecker Street Records General Manager Peter Kaye. “It’s mostly older guys who have cassette players in their cars. There’s also the occasional young person who buys them for novelty’s sake.”
While some people might suggest that the lack of sales reflect the store’s scant selection, Kaye said that even desirable newer release albums, like a cassette tape reissue of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton released in the wake of the popular film of the same name, remain on store shelves.
Similarly, when a seller brought in his collection of highly sought-after and rare Brazilian LPs and tapes, Kaye said that while the records were an easy sell, the tapes were a different story. “Even though that music is hard to come by, the tapes were a very hard sell,” he said.
At Academy Records and CDs, a long-running music shop in Manhttan’s Flatiron District, employees also don’t buy into the idea of a cassette craze, though the store has been selling tapes for ab
out six months, with some interest.
“There appears to be some sort of nostalgia,” Charles, an Academy Records employee who asked to be identified only by his first name. “People are abandoning digital, so they’re grasping onto analog.”
While Academy Records caters mostly to releases on CD and vinyl, the shop maintains a healthy selection of albums on tape, including many of New York City-based artists who produce experimental and electronic music , genres that Charles said were usually released on cassette.
A small and neat collection of white-spined cassettes released by Generations Unlimited, an experimental music record label founded in 1987, sits on the wooden shelf above the used rock LPs. Academy Music employees said most of GU’s releases were originally distributed through the mail on cassette, an arrangement that allows listeners a chance to experience the locally recorded music as it was originally intended and circulated.
Despite the music industry’s push to produce new releases on cassettes—on Twitter alone hundreds of posts promote upcoming albums from record labels and independent musicians—the Recording Industry Association of America released a statement in February saying it would not start tracking cassette tape sales.
“We regularly check with our music label members to see if they are reporting any change in the sales of cassettes, but there hasn’t been for quite some time,” Vice President of Communications Cara Duckworth Weiblinger said. “It’s such a small number it doesn’t meet the threshold of sales requirements for us to report it.”
It remains to be seen if the cassette tape’s comeback will take shape alongside the resurgence of vinyl records. But inside a cramped, Greenwich Village record store, amid stacks of and cardboard boxes filled with of LPs, Rebel Rebel Records owner David Shebiro said he remained skeptical.
People do buy cassettes, he said, “but I don’t know why.”