Retro Rewind

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"Nostalgia is not what it used to be."
Simone Signoret

Record stores all over America will be opening their doors on April 13th for National Record Store Day. But cassettes are sneaking in through the back. These portable petite plastic packs from the past now have their own Cassette Store Day each year in October, and they're winning over some fans that also shop for vinyl. In fact, annual sales of music cassettes were up 23% in 2018, and 70% since 2016. Artists and studios are rethinking this ancient format and not only re-releasing albums popular during cassette's halcyon days, but new music as well. What's with the retro rewind?

I talked about the rebirth of the cassette way, way back in 2016 ("Is the Mix Tape Back in the Mix?"). That year, 129,00 cassettes were sold. Last year 219,000 were spun off into eager hands. Those numbers pale in comparison to vinyl, which sold almost 10 million, but both saw double-digit growth from 2017. This is encouraging news for analog fans of both formats. Let's hit the stop button and find out who these buyers are, and why on earth would they want to play cassettes?

Our first look is at the demographics of vinyl consumers. Roughly half are under 35 years old, so we can assume pure nostalgia isn't driving them to buy. After all, most grew up with CDs in their toy boxes. However, the cassette was still a popular and convenient way to keep music in the 1990s and early aughts. Some cassette buyers probably never gave them up, or are rekindling their past.

Before iTunes, before the iPhone, before the iPod, and way before the world wide web, cassettes were all the rage for those on the go. Put your LP onto cassette and stick that in your back pocket. The quality wasn't very good, but that didn't matter in the beginning. The cassette was small, cheap, and convenient. The modern day equivalent is the mp3. It's small (file size), cheap (free), and convenient (downloads quickly). If the mighty (or diminutive) mp3 supplanted the cassette, then why are some listeners going back to the old analog plastic cartridge?

It's hip. The bulk of cassette consumers are young and have never lived in the cassette age. Many of their parents weren't slaves to cassettes, so they're doing something different than Mom and Dad did. To these new listeners, it's a totally unique experience. Most of these nascent analog tapers with untainted ears have never felt the dismay of hearing a great record reduced to hiss, warbles, and dull sound. Or of a hot car in July turning a cassette into a melted blob. Or the frustration of trying to fit 91-minutes onto a 90-minute tape. No, they like the warmth (translation: hiss, loss of high frequencies, muddy bass); the linear features (translation: you have to fast-forward, stop, play, rewind, stop, play, fast-forward, stop, play – just to skip to the next song); and the retro feel (translation: old school, no longer mass produced, fell out of favor for better technology) of cassettes. Cassettes are cool, or whatever they say today.

I can't be too hard on those who want to keep classic technology alive. I love the advances in digital photography, but I still enjoy shooting film. I have electric hedge clippers in my basement, but I usually grab the hand clippers when I trim the bushes. I still start a fire on a cold winter evening even though I have a heat pump and a radiant heater. I see nothing wrong with listening to music on cassettes. Hearing a song on a different format may be enlightening for some listeners, and I'm all for that.

Sometimes we're conditioned to wax nostalgic about the first way we heard something. Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police is an incredible album with great sounds. But in my mind, I still hear tape hiss under it because I owned the cassette before the LP. I think the best way to experience a Gramophone from the 1920s is on a hand-cranked Victrola because modern record players have too much fidelity. When we move on to new technologies, we tend to completely discount what it replaced when there might still be value left in it. Cassette recording and playback quality reached its apex in the 1990s with high-output tape formulations, advanced noise-reduction (including digital processing), and automated transport correction. Finally, cassettes could compete with CDs – but it was too late. Portable media players were seeping into the market by the late 90s.

The case for cassettes existing amid an all digital world today? You can hold it in your hand. That's right, it isn't in the cloud or on a smartphone. It's a tactile little plastic cartridge that rattles when you shake it. When you hold it, your thumb automatically seeks one of the spindle holes. When you put it in the player, it has that satisfying click-click as it seats into the holder. When you press play, it purrs forward and hisses between songs. When the side comes to an end, it beckons you to interact with it by pulling it from the machine to show its other face. It makes you keenly aware of time passing. It is a technology that relies on your interaction.

So is this contemporary crop of cassette aficionados crazy? No, they're simply enjoying a new experience listening to music. The business world is taking note of the newfound popularity: Monoprice has just released a $1,300 smart cassette boombox with digital processing, bluetooth, voice commands, and 1,000 watts of power; when its last stash of music-grade cassettes started to dwindle in 2016, National Audio in Missouri decided to manufacture its own, filling a much needed void in the US; and bands like Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins have put out anniversary and special release albums on cassette, driving up the demand. With all this renewed interest in a medium I was glad to move on from, I can't see myself ever going back to cassettes. But I do have a very nice cassette player at home just in case I get nostalgic. Now if you want to talk 8-track tapes...

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