Like so many cool relics of the 80s and 90s, cassette tapes seemed doomed to die an anonymous and inglorious death. Compact discs were the first portent of trouble, and then the dawn of the digital age seemed to usher in the end for the clunky audio format.
But contrary to such a notion, people are still listening to cassettes. And not just a few people either. A fairly sizeable population is getting back into the format, and data shows that the trend is only going to continue. A Nielsen Music report
estimated a total of 130,000 tapes sold in 2016, up from 74,000 sold the year prior. So many tapes are being produced and sold that there is actually a national shortage of the tape material itself. And now in this retro-futurist landscape where magnetic tape is suddenly a hot commodity, one company stands to profit big.
National Audio Company, based out of Springfield, Missouri, is one of the last cassette-producing holdouts in the world, and the last in the United States. Over the last 15 years, while other audio companies were shuttering their cassette departments, National Audio was stocking up, buying up their former competitors' surplus. But now, they say they are running low, and with less than a year's worth of tape left in stock, they have big plans to reinvent the wheel.
Company engineer Steve Stepp and his crew are reformatting an old device that used to print the magnetic strip for credit cards, and with it, they hope to begin pumping out four miles of cassette tape every minute.
All this might seem a bit much for a format that should by all means be dead, and a resurgence that feels more fad than trend. But all signs seem to point toward a positive swing. Burger Records estimates that they've sold half a million cassettes from nearly 1,000 different artists since first opening their doors.
And believe it or not, there seems to be some good logic to embracing the tape. Compared to vinyl, which is expensive and prone now more than ever to lengthy production delays, cassettes are cheap and accessible, and a great physical medium for up-and-coming bands to invest in. Throw a digital download code in along with the tape, and you give consumers a physical and digital product for sometimes a quarter of the cost of a vinyl record.
The physical sensation of holding your music is also important, and cassettes are additionally replete with the warm, scratchy audio anomalies and nuances that makes listening to them a unique sensation. And in the era of highbrow vinyl elitism, cassettes represent a sort of classless, unpretentious appreciation of music. There is no argument over what needle sounds best, or if the original pressing is better than the re-release because honestly, cassettes don't sound all that good to begin with.
But audio fidelity is beside the point. In an increasingly digital and sterilized age, cassettes are a warm, plastic piece of nostalgia that promise to stick around. Here's to hoping National Audio gets their new production line running soon so this fad can stick around.