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The music industry’s cassette comeback

John Sepulvado Mar 13, 2015
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The way Popeye is about spinach or Jane Goodall is about chimpanzees is how Mike Haley is about cassette tapes. Haley’s got a podcast called Tabs Out and it’s all about cassettes. Haley lives in Wilmington, Delaware, and every few weeks or so he gets his friends together and talks tape.

“[We] sit around, and drink some beers, play some tapes, and ramble on about whatever dumb thing you can think about to critique a cassette tape, I think we’ve talked about it already,” says Haley.

While Haley features indie, quirky and unique artists who release cassettes, some big players are getting into the cassette game. Disney sold about 2,500 copies of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack on tape, according to Nielsen. Then, there are indie labels like Burger Records, which claims to have sold more than 300,000 cassette tapes since 2007.

What’s driving this cassette tape renaissance? Well, tapes are cheap. Jessica Bordeaux is co-owner of Portland-based New Moss Records. Boudreaux says tapes are a low-risk gamble.

“We don’t know realistically how many people are going to buy [releases],” Bordeaux says. “And I think tapes do lend themselves to more creative packaging then … and a lot of the record stores aren’t going to sell your tapes, and so you can be more weird and creative.”

That creativity can help keep super fans interested in a band  and those super fans really matter for the $15 billion global music industry. According to Nielsen, which tracks music sales, about 70 cents of every music dollar comes from a super fan. So, if a band like Metallica puts out rare or hard to get material, there’s a good chance super fans will snatch it up.

If that material is on cassette  with its high profit margins — cha-ching.

For collectors, tapes are so much better than digital music, says label Kill Rock Stars’ production manager, James Reling, since you can actually hold them.

“Things have become so disposable, when you see something that is so obviously not disposable, it has that much more appeal as something that is kinda precious or special,” Reling says.

That tangibility also has some data geeks are clamoring for these cassettes, as well. That’s because Sony, IBM and other hardware companies have developed tapes that aren’t your grandma’s tapes. They can store about 185 terabytes of data, the equivalent all the printed collected works in the Library of Congress times 18.5.

Graeme McMillian writes for Wired magazine, and he says cassette tapes are appealing for the same reason music collectors might like them  they exist in real life.

“If you have a glitch with your digital storage, it could be gone,” says McMillian. “Whereas with tape, it’s tangible. It’s right there.”

So, does all this mean we really do have a cassette tape renaissance? Mike Haley thinks probably not, they’re just a fad.

“Metallica, and Jeff Bridges are making thousands and thousands of tapes or whatever,” Haley says. “I think they’ll eventually figure out that this isn’t really working. I think that enough people wrote think pieces that cassettes are making a comeback, to make people think cassettes are making a comeback, when in reality writing about cassettes are making a comeback.”

Wait a minute … writing about cassette tapes was once a thing?

This story comes to us from The Future of What, a new public radio program focusing on the music industry.

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