When an old compact stereo from a local thriftstore with a working cassette deck and a spotty CD player, led me on a search for music on cassette, I discovered something interesting. Believe it or not, music on cassette is making a bit of a comeback. Independent recording labels like Lost Sound Tapes, Woodsist, Zap Cassettes, and Canada’s Scotch Tapes are releasing new music on cassette tape. For many people this is a surprising development. They remember cassettes occasionally being eaten by various stereos, boom boxes, and Walkman-style cassette players. But, the cassette renaissance is real and makes some sense.
Every few years, consumer electronics companies offer new formats for storing music. For example, the music world generally transitioned along two paths. On one path, the industry transitioned from records to compact discs to MP3 files. Along the other path, music lovers transitioned from reel-to-reel tapes to eight tracks to cassettes to compact discs to MP3 files. Just when everyone thought they were safe to store music on computers and MP3 players, music lovers found that the streaming audio services like Pandora and Spotify were very convenient. For some music fans, it’s all been very discombobulating.
Along the way some people have started to wonder if we’re losing something when technological change reduces music to files and artists to cyberspace avitars. Audiophiles have already noticed that we are sacrificing some of the richness of music on the altars of diskspace and bandwidth. Digital file compression does affect sound quality. From another direction, some music fans enjoy the experience of listening to analog music and interacting with their stereo equipment rather than a computer menu. They prefer to put a needle on a record, pop in a CD, or even listen to a cassette. Music on cassette offers a chance to listen to music in an analog format without commiting to a more expensive vinyl record. The cassette is a great way to buy music if you are poor and in today’s economy many young music fans are.
Since a music cassette from an Indie label only costs between five and ten dollars, it’s an affordable way to buy music on a whim or in support of a band. Music cassettes are inexpensive to make and the cassette wrappers provide a great way to provide fans with art and information about a music group. Some musicians have found that cassettes are a good way to release their first music on a shoestring budget. When music is recorded on high quality equipment and played on a good quality cassette deck, it can approach compact disc sound quality. Some entrepreneurs and music enthusiasts also find that the startup costs of creating a “cassette-only” music label are within their means. Often, used studio equipment can find a new life with such a new label.
If listeners have a tape player on a boombox, a stereo, or an older car stereo, it doesn’t have to go unused. At Goodwill Stores around Atlanta, I found music cassettes are available for as low as 55 cents. It’s easy to load up on tapes. If you have a few bucks, the music cassette is a great way to give an Indy band a break and play their music.
Finally, many people still have vintage boomboxes or stereo systems. There is always something retro and cool about firing up a vintage stereo or ghetto blaster. Boomboxes are always for sale at online auctions and forums such as the Boombox and Ghetto Blaster Discussion Board at stereo2go cater to boombox collectors and restorers. It’s an interesting hobby. Just do your testing with a tape you don’t like! Alternatively, you may still be able to pick up a new boombox with a cassette deck at a local drugstore chain.
Dorian Lynskey, “Return of the Audio Cassette.” The Guardian. 29 March 2010.
Tom Davenport, “Industry Opinion: Cassette Tapes Are Back” UltimateGuitar.com. 9 January 2013.