Cassette tapes, like vinyl albums, are making a comeback. While CDs and digital media still dominate, the largest operational cassette plant in the US is reporting an impressive increase in demand, according to a 2015 semi-annual Nielsen report.
National Audio Company (NAC) president Steve Stepp told Ars that his company in Springfield, Missouri, has seen a (very) healthy 20 percent year-over-year growth in demand for audio cassette tapes for several years. But 2015 was even better. As of early October, NAC reported a 31 percent increase in order volume over the previous year.
NAC is in a curious position because in addition to being the largest audio cassette factory in the US, it is also one of the last remaining.
“We never believed the audio cassette was finished,” Stepp told Ars.
He said that when his competitors started to jump out of the cassette business as CDs came to prominence, NAC started buying up their machines. “It would have been incredibly expensive 30 to 35 years ago back then [cassette manufacturing machines] were new to the market, but when our competitors left the business and started making CDs, we moved all over the country and bought [them] out,” he said.
This turned out to be a profitable investment, because when audio cassettes started to lose their appeal in the 1990s, the manufacturers of the machines to make them also left the industry. “The situation is this: there is no new equipment for sale,” Stepp told Ars.
The steady stream of smaller cassette factories going out of business has helped keep NAC’s factory floor buzzing. Recently, Stepp said, a friend of his who ran an audio cassette factory in Kansas City decided to retire and put his company up for auction. Stepp won the auction on Monday and plans to send four 53-foot trailers to the factory to pick up an assortment of cassette loaders and test equipment.
NAC’s factory has eight production lines and more than 40 employees (including four graphic artists and nine audio engineers). To keep those production lines running, the company has 50 to 60 different heavy machinery in reserve that it has purchased over the years. “We cannibalized thirty or forty of them for parts,” Stepp told Ars. NAC even has its own machine shop to make parts that are simply no longer available.
Stepp says he expects sales to increase in 2016. “This year we collected bills in Finland, Estonia and Russia… it is a global phenomenon, [and] in fact, all our competition threw in the towel years ago.
Rock out with your walkman out
In a September article, Bloomberg reported that NAC “has agreements with major record labels such as Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group, as well as a number of small contracts with indie bands. About 70 percent of the company’s sales come from music cassettes, the rest are blank cassettes.”
Even more mainstream artists are joining the cassette hype: Metallica, The Flaming Lips, and Nelly Furtado have all had limited edition cassette editions in recent years. But independent artists have remained faithful to the audiocassette for years, thanks in part to its noise. In 2005, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth even put together an elegiac book about the mixtape.
Derek Rogers, an experimental artist from Texas, told Ars that since 2007 he has released his music on cassettes as well as CDs and vinyl. Rogers’ music has appeared on over 50 cassette releases. (His music was also featured on NPR’s “Songs We Love” last week.)
“There is a thickness and a warmth inherent to using actual tape as a physical preservation of sound, and the hiss of tape usually lends itself well to the writing and recording of some forms of experimental drone music,” Rogers wrote to Ars in an email. “Vinyl can be just as hot, really just depends on the mastering process. Digital can be fine too, really everything depends on the A to B process of creating sounds and the workflow process to the end.”
Rogers said he generally works with labels that release cassette tapes in runs of 50 to 100.
So, at least for some artists, the return to cassettes is about creating a specific sound along with a tangible experience that is lost with digital music. Not everyone agrees that this is worth it; one recently New York Times op-ed dismisses cassettes as impractical nostalgia.
“The cassette is the epitome of planned obsolescence,” writes Rosecrans Baldwin. “Every time you play one, it goes backwards. Bad sound gets worse. Shells burst in winter, melt in summer. Inevitably a cassette tape rolls off: it is only fate. Fine, death happens to all of us.”
Whether the current (and relatively small) resurgence of the audiocassette is due to the fact that aging kids of the 80s now have (a little) more disposable income to entertain their nostalgic whims, or whether its rise is a repudiation of the colder experience that digital music offers, it looks like 2016 is already on track to account for what’s left of the cassette tape business.