Tapes are Dead, Long Live Tapes: What’s Behind the Cassette Tape Revolution?

I’m not sure exactly when the jokes started: it was probably somewhere around 2008. I had started buying vinyl the year before. I was repeating talking points about vinyl’s aesthetic, how download codes made CDs moot, and how record companies were steadily increasing the production of new records.

Nearly every conversation got to the same point: they would scratch their head with a bemused look and ask, “what’s next…cassette tapes?”

Here we are in 2022, and the cassette revival is in full swing. Besides the plethora of small tape labels dotting the underground, even major artists like Taylor Swift are releasing their albums on cassette. Urban Outfitters are stocking them in their stores. You can even buy a copy of Ariana Grande’s new album on cassette from Wal Mart’s website.

It’s no longer a niche of niches: tapes are back.

But how did we get here? Certainly there’s a bit of nostalgia or irony to it, but that can’t account for the resurrection of the once-dead medium. Having watched the phenomenon closely for over a decade now, I’ve noticed some factors.

The Cassette and the Car Stereo

The first time I heard the phrase “Cassette Revival” in earnest, it was on NPR. They were discussing the growing number of underground bands and labels who were releasing music on tape.The epicenter of this phenomenon at that point was Los Angeles. LA is unique among major cities for the complete uselessness of its public transportation, leading to a complete domination of cars.

But cars are expensive, even without the inflated cost of living of SoCal, so many residents end up buying old beate. Many of which still had their stock stereos, which didn’t have an aux port or even CD player. What they did have was a tape deck.

This isn’t unique to LA though: the 1998 Dodge van that I drove until three years ago only had a radio and a tape deck. While I had a tape adapter to listen to music off of my phone, I also had a compartment in the center console that I filled with various tapes that I found at garage sales, thrift stores, and even record stores. When I started seeing tapes at shows, it was a no brainer to buy the tape over the CD for car listening.

DIY-Friendly Budget

If vinyl has one fatal flaw, it’s the price. And I don’t just mean for the consumer. From a manufacturing standpoint, vinyl is an prohibitively intensive process, with thousands of dollars spent on set up before you’ve pressed a single copy. Having pressed three of my own band’s on vinyl myself, I can tell you first hand that pressing on vinyl is one of the biggest investments a band (or label) can make. The profit margins make it impractical to press anything less than 300 copies. On top of costing a massive chunk of change upfront, many bands end up with boxes full of unsold records taking up space in their basement.

Cassettes on the other hand are cheap and easy. You can make a run of tapes for as little as $2 per unit, often with runs as low as twenty-five, which is great for anyone who doesn’t want to sit on inventory for years.

It also makes it running a record label a far more affordable prospect. With bands able to handle their own distribution and recording, many small labels now operate more as curators than as gatekeepers. Tapes are an affordable way for these labels to get started without putting a second mortgage on their home.

It’s not just more affordable for the creators though. Almost every time I go to buy a record these days, I see little the cassette price taunting me beneath the $25+ for the vinyl. New cassettes are usually less than ten dollars, so if your priority is buying as much music as you can, tapes are the obvious choice.

Let’s Get Physical

There’s no arguing the fact that physical media as a whole is no longer necessary. Nearly every song ever made is available through our phones for a small monthly subscription. But even with the convenience of streaming, many folks still prefer to buy a physical copy of a release that means something to them.

And with most labels offering free downloads with each cassette purchase, some people buy the cassette just to have something to hold while they use the digital version for their actual listening. I have a few friends who collect tapes who don’t even have a way to play them. Instead, the tape serves as a sort of totem for the album, a physical representation of the files on their device.

No Such Thing as a Perfect Medium

Now, for the sake of transparency, I’ll just say that I am firmly on Team Vinyl. I am fully bought in, and I’m not going back.

That said, I have no problem admitting that vinyl has some big problems. They’re inconvenient: they require a ton of space to store, they an only hold less than twenty-five minutes of music per side, they require expensive equipment to listen to, they need careful maintenance…I could go on. I’ve squared myself with dealing with these issues, but I wouldn’t expect everyone to do the same.

Tape is a clumsy medium: you have to rewind and fastforward to get to specific songs, the tape can get tangled on itself or tear, the quality of the recordings is hardly audiophile grade…

But depending on what’s important to the listener, tapes might prove to be the best option. When the choices are between clunky, needy, expensive vinyl, buying digital, or a tape, cassettes actually have a far better chance than anyone gave them credit for fifteen years ago.

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Regardless of all factors of cost or compatibility, something has to be said about the unique aesthetic of cassette tapes. Especially for music fans of a certain age, tapes have an indelible nostalgia factor. Tapes are tied to many of my core musical memories, and I know I’m not alone there.

But even if you don’t have deep memories attached to cassettes, there’s just something so satisfying about cracking open a jewel case and holding the tape in your hand, about the clunking taps as the tape settles into place in the tape deck. There’s something comforting about the whirr of the tape wheels and the soft hiss of white noise as the tape heads come in contact with the tape. And when you consider all of the options available to customize the color of the tape shell, case, and J-card, the aesthetic possibilities are endless, lighting up the part of our brains still fascinated with shiny rocks and shells.

Despite all odds, cassette tapes have managed to survive in the digital era, even as CDs continue to decline. But despite what anyone might say, there are some good reasons behind their resuscitation.

What about you? Why do you collect tapes? Do you think the Tape Revival is stupid? Drop a comment to let us know.

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