Cassette Tapes Make A Comeback … Kind Of

Discarded Tape

hide captionMost of us throw away our old tapes, but some music labels are bringing them back.

DG Jones/via Flickr

It’s been awhile since most of us listened to a tape player. We relegated our cassettes to dusty boxes in the attic and exchanged them for smart CD players and even smarter MP3 players. Physical mix tapes ceased to exist. They became “mixtapes,” a conceptual idea for grouping our music and distributing it to friends.

Fast forward to 2010 and, suddenly, at least 25 small labels are producing and distributing music on cassette tapes.

In an online age, the existence of these labels is puzzling. Who really wants to delicately untangle a tape catastrophe — and they do happen — from your car’s audio system? (Do you even have a tape player in your car?) Who wants to give up the the ease and durability of a digital audio file for sometimes fragile magnetic tape?

If you do (!) and if you’re looking to find a new major artist on cassette, you’re probably better off making that tape yourself. The new releases that can be bought on a cassette tape are almost exclusively from indie artists, often doing small projects.

But why would they go there?

Twenty-three-year-old Matthew Sage manages Patient Sounds, a tape-focused label based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Patient Sounds runs limited releases of tapes, usually in batches of 100 and, for those who refuse to listen to music on tape, releases the music simultaneously on the Web for free. For Sage, tapes have a tangible aesthetic appeal.

“The work involved in dubbing the tapes, cutting the inserts, and making the tapes is half of the process for me," he said via e-mail. "The tape is more an art object that also plays music (similar to vinyl) where the CDR is more a vessel for a piece of music.”

That process can take Sage as long as three months for 300 to 500 tapes. As with most art, it becomes less about efficiency and more about the quality of the finished product in the end.

In terms of money, making tapes is relatively cheap. Blank tapes cost as little as 20 cents each and tape duplicators are sometimes available at thrift stores, sparking DIY ambitions.

“They [tapes] are technologically regressive, less portable than an iPod and don't sound like digital music files," said Sage. "But I think, generally speaking, the kitsch appeal of the tape, when matched with their affordability to produce, make them a perfect medium for artists struggling to happily release their art in an economy that is totally in shambles.”

Sage acknowledged that a lot people have reservations about buying tapes. And no one would argue that cassettes are going to take ground back from iPods.

After running a more traditional CDR label for two years, Sage made the switch to tape. To Sage, this new tape-dominant format — with its lo-fi sound quality — better reflects the type of music that he's released for nearly a year now.

But even with the renewed interest in tapes sparked by entrepreneurs like Sage, 2009 was the worst year for cassettes sales since Nielsen started measuring them.

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