The cheap plastic. The unruly ribbon. Leave them on a car dashboard on a July afternoon and be prepared to come back to a warped, melted mess. To those who can remember loading a Walkman or boom box and taking in the warbled results, the recent reemergence of cassette tapes is a peculiar development. But it is a trend that some saw coming, even before the latest resurrection of vinyl, record players, and all things pre-iPhone.
Though quantifiable figures can be hard to come by — unlike vinyl, which reportedly took in $226 million in the first half of this year, tapes are still a relatively underground endeavor — there’s no denying the format’s increased visibility.
In the past few years alone, it has garnered its own holiday (Cassette Store Day, founded in 2013 by a group of labels hoping to draw attention to the virtues of the format), served as the subject of a feature-length documentary (“Cassette,” which is currently being submitted to various film festivals), and become the musical trend du jour for a slew of indie bands and enthusiasts.
Even major bands have gotten in on the action, with groups like Metallica, the Flaming Lips, and Dinosaur Jr. offering limited-release cassette formats in recent years.
“The interesting thing is they’re being put out by labels and being consumed by people who are not old enough to have had cassettes,” says Jem Aswad, senior editor at Billboard, which tracks the music industry. “So it’s a very confusing phenomenon to me.”
Confusing is a good enough descriptor. Beyond portability (and the ability to make mix tapes), cassettes weren’t much of an advance beyond vinyl. Yet, at a time in which anyone with a computer or smartphone can instantly access millions of songs, oftentimes at little or no cost, something about these small plastic relics seems to have taken hold.
Reed Lappin had a feeling about this back in 2006, when he and a business partner found themselves at a Lowell storage barn, responding to a classified ad hawking old records. As owner of In Your Ear, a Boston record shop dealing mostly in second-hand merchandise, Lappin makes such trips periodically.
On this day, the record selection proved underwhelming, but he came across something else that caught his attention: a vast collection of cassette tapes.
“We figured if there’s [ever] any kind of market for cassettes, they’ll come to us,” Lappin recalled recently, explaining his decision to pony up around $400 for roughly 10,000 cassettes. “If not, no big cost.”
A decade or so later, Lappin can’t complain about how it’s worked out.
On a recent evening, Lappin stood behind the counter of his Commonwealth Avenue shop, attempting to explain the draw of a technology that debuted in 1963 and enjoyed a fruitful run over the next two or three decades before eventually being rendered obsolete by CDs.
Lappin estimates that he sells about 50 cassettes a week on average — some to collectors but many to young people who, he says, “like the novelty of it.”
“It’s fun to put on a cassette and listen to it,” says Aaron Swartz, 22, a Boston-based musician. “I guess it’s just the [physical] nature of it — having it and putting it on appeals to me. I never got into CDs, really, so this has kind of been that replacement.”
Walking into Lappin’s basement store is a little like going back in time. Along with mountains of used records, CDs, and movies, he stocks roughly 20,000 cassettes by his count — almost all priced from $1 to $4. Stacked on shelves along an extensive back wall, the selection is wide-ranging, everything from Bob Marley to Guns N’ Roses to Tim McGraw.
And while the financial gains are far from earth-shattering — multiple local record store owners pointed out that they’re certainly not getting rich off cassette sales — a market does exist.
But it’s not just record stores. Many indie artists have taken to recording their music on cassettes, partly because the means of production can be cheaper and quicker than producing CDs or vinyl records; many vinyl manufacturers, for instance, are notoriously backlogged. Some artist-run record labels, meanwhile, have elected to provide their music solely in cassette form.
At his Jamaica Plain record shop, Deep Thoughts, Nick Williams says he’s noticed a modest increase in the number of customers seeking cassettes. But where he’s seen a significant bump in interest is on the blog he runs dedicated to reviewing cassettes, called Cassette Gods.
“The submissions to that have increased dramatically in the last 10 years,” Williams says. “I used to get one tape every other day, and now sometimes it’s five or six mailed in a day from bands that want their cassettes reviewed.”
Despite the apparent uptick in popularity, however, some have remained unmoved.
Though he admits that “there is an interest that wasn’t there two years ago,” John Damroth, who runs Planet Records in Cambridge, currently has no plans to start stocking cassettes regularly.
“I find myself amused by it, but not willing to commit space to it,” he says. “We’re sort of living in the past already, but not that past. We sell a lot of records and CDs, we still have a marketplace for that stuff.’’
But, he adds, “I’ve been proven wrong before.”
How long the interest in cassettes might last, of course, is anyone’s guess. Music trends tend to flow in odd and unexpected directions, and attempting to predict what might come next, Lappin says, is a pointless endeavor.
“Who knows in 50 years what people are going to want?” he asks. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that records were going to come back.”