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Cassettes Refuse to Die and We’re Not Upset About That

Cassettes are back and indie artists are making them as fast as they can to benefit from a surge in demand.

TDK Cassette Tapes

During the recent taping of our next podcast, the subject matter pivoted to cassettes. We know why the topic came up but we just didn’t expect it to dominate the bottom half of the conversation. Mitch Anderson, Brian Mitchell, and I are all old enough to have grown up with cassette tapes, boom boxes, mix tapes, and the Sony Walkman — but we never expected the format to have any legs in 2021.

Maxell Tape Magazine Ad 1983
Maxell Tape Magazine Ad 1983

It will surprise some to learn that the venerable Maxell tape is still in demand even though its distribution is limited to Japan after a decision by the parent company in 2020 to stop selling its UR ferric-oxide-based cassettes abroad. You can find them in very limited quantities on Amazon for around $12 USD for a single 120 minute UR cassette. The XLII-S tapes from our youth are no longer being manufactured.

Bummer.

If you read a lot of tech magazines, certain articles stick in your memory and a 2009 piece in Stuff addressed the viability of cassettes and concluded in a follow-up piece almost 9 years later that audio cassettes were dead like MTV.

The problem with that is that indie artists and labels discovered that younger music fans actually love the format and with hundreds of thousands of used tape decks floating around pawn shops, eBay, and vintage audio stores — there is a market still for the format.

But is anyone actually buying them?

According to the most recent sales data, from sources in the United Kingdom, United States, and New Zealand — new cassette tape sales climbed over 100% in 2020 with more than 65,000 new albums sold in H1 2020 in England alone.

Discogs Cassette Sales Report 2019 vs 2020
Source: Discogs

Discogs reported that over 282,000 new cassette tapes were sold through their marketplace in 2020 which was a modest 33% increase over 2019.

The pandemic and global lockdowns have played a huge part in this revival for sure; most people have struggled with the alienation and detachment from normal life and for a lot of music listeners over 40 — cassette tapes take them back to a different era where digital wasn’t the top dog and we made mix tapes for our friends, spouses, girlfriends, and it took real effort to make it happen.

Anyone can click a few tabs on their smartphone and create a playlist in 2021. My 8 year-old has a iPad and Spotify account filled with playlists that she shares with her friends, but none of the songs get listened to for more than 20 seconds.

Creating a mix tape took research and the patience to time out the gaps between each song; we all pumped our fists in the air when the final song finished recording with seconds left on the tape.

We all yanked out our best markers, and cut out images of rock stars from magazines to create the best custom cover art for the lucky recipient.

I’ve been running from the folks at the Columbia Tape & Record Club for almost 25 years still looking for the $43.45 that I still owe them.

Columbia Record & Tape Club Magazine Ad
Columbia Record & Tape Club Magazine Ad

Nostalgia aside, cassette tapes were always very convenient; everyone owned a Sony Walkman, tape deck in their car, and some of us were lucky enough to own a Nakamichi or high-end NAD, Sony, or Revox tape deck.

The COVID-19 pandemic created another opportunity for audio cassettes as indie artists (and some very popular artists like Lady Gaga) needed to make a living in 2020 with no live music events. Record and tape sales became one of the most important sources of revenue for artists who couldn’t tour and made next to nothing from streaming royalties.

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Folks may laugh, but a lot of artists survived on physical music sales during the pandemic and they have a new generation of fans who are format agnostic and just want to enjoy their favorite music.

Nakamichi Dragon Cassette Deck
Nakamichi Dragon Cassette Deck

For artists, cassette tapes are a lot cheaper to produce than records (which are taking longer to get pressed in 2021 with a huge backlog at pressing plants) and a physical product that fans can actually own in the era of music rentals (that would be streaming).

Will cassette tapes experience the same kind of revival as records or CDs? Not likely as nobody is really rushing to make Nakamichi Dragons anymore and indie artists are only producing tapes in very limited quantities.

For those of us who never sold their Nakamichi and NAD tape decks, it might be the right time to dust off that box in the basement with those prized mix tapes and see how much life and memories they still have to deliver.

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Charles.

    August 8, 2021 at 11:02 pm

    Good luck getting those old tape decks to run with dried up/disintegrating belts, grease that’s fossilized into mortar, plastic gears as brittle as lifesavers etc.
    Oh and if you’re lucky enough to find a tech with the know-how, who is willing to work on it, and can, by some dark magic, conjure the parts needed to resurrect your deceased player be ready to pay that particular ferryman a couple of your limbs and your first born, but yeah plying tapes again is soooooooo worth it!

    • Ian White

      August 8, 2021 at 11:43 pm

      Charles,

      Tell us what you really think.

      We’re connected to a number of vintage audio dealers and techs who do work on old tape decks and everything you stated is valid. However, a number of these people have kept inventory for such an emergency and are quite busy working on the more expensive decks of the period from Nakamichi, Revox, and NAD.

      It’s a niche within a niche. We don’t think tapes will ever come back in a meaningful way that anyone is going to start making Dragons again, but you would be surprised how many younger listeners are willing to buy a new album on tape. It’s about ownership for a lot of people. Streaming is a rental.

      Ian White

      • Charles

        August 9, 2021 at 12:36 am

        Good on you for having a sense of humor re. my ‘over the top’ response. I loved cassettes, and making mixtapes for friends was a passion of mine.
        I just thought that your enthusiasm for their ‘come-back’, tepid as it may be, left out some of the more bitter nuances that youngsters, who do not have your resources, looking to ‘hop on the cassette train’ could very easily encounter. When suggesting, however tangentially, that young people buy decades old electronics I think it only prudent to mention some of the inherent pitfalls. Some may get lucky, and uncover a player with no issues that outlasts this trend, but just as many will end up frustrated, a little bit poorer and likely a little more bitter.

        • Ian White

          August 9, 2021 at 12:57 am

          Charles,

          It’s hard not to have a sense of humor about the high-end industry right now. I think those of us who grew up with tapes look back at them with a strong sense of nostalgia. We spent countless hours making mix tapes for the car and girlfriends (who became wives) and some of us recorded over a hundred hours of old radio programs that we wish didn’t get ruined in a flood.

          Very few young people (or older audiophiles) can afford a restored Nakamichi Dragon and I wouldn’t consider it a wise investment for any of them.

          I do think the middle of the market is vanishing and that explains why entry-level equipment has improved so much and why vintage audio is so popular now.

          One industry insider has attacked me online quite frequently since we started covering vintage audio but the proof is in the numbers.

          180,000 reads (vintage audio content) in 6 months.

          Thank you for reading.

          Ian White

          • Charles

            August 9, 2021 at 1:20 am

            I do love me some vintage. I actually never stopped buying LPs. I currently have 4 vintage turntables set up and running, so count me in the vintage audio camp and a fairly regular reeder. Keep up the good work.

          • Ian White

            August 9, 2021 at 1:59 am

            Charles,

            Greatly appreciate that you take the time to read us.

            I’m on restored Thorens #3 from Vinyl Nirvana so you’re in good company.

            Ian White

    • Eddie E Hicks Sr

      August 10, 2021 at 2:36 pm

      I have a Pioneer double tape deck (CT-W600R) that is at least 25 years old. I have hundreds of cassette tapes that I play on occasion. It’s not connected to my main high-end surround system, but to a Sony receiver in my basement office. I have so many cassettes from the days you couldn’t play CDs in the car. I copied the CDs to cassettes. I have a couple of cassettes I purchased in Okinawa when stationed there in the Marines back in 1976. They don’t sound so good, but they actually still play.

      • Ian White

        August 10, 2021 at 6:42 pm

        Eddie,

        For me, the allure is that I have dozens of tapes that I made in the 1980s recording old radio shows like Dr. Demento. I can’t find my mix tapes but I have close to 100 hours of old comedy programs, radio serials, and FM concerts that I recorded in high school from a very good FM tuner into a Nakamichi RX-505.

        Ian White

  2. Bobby Benjamin

    August 9, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    As a recording engineer in Boston and LA in the 70’s & 80’s, I always found Nakamichis to play too fast, i.e. about a quarter tone higher than true.Therefore the tape only made sense if it was recorded on that Nak or another Nak. Tapes made on other brand decks sounded a bit like Bugs Bunny on a Nak, and to top it off, Nakamichis were way more expensive than reliable Sony, Kenwood, Tascam/Teac etc.

    • Ian White

      August 9, 2021 at 2:10 pm

      Bobby,

      Now that I think about it, My Nakamichi RX-505 did sound slightly different with pre-recorded tapes vs mix tapes I made from FM radio broadcasts and records. I don’t recall it sounding like Bugs or Elmer Fudd, but the speed thing I need to check out.

      Best,
      Ian White

    • Chris

      August 15, 2021 at 8:09 pm

      I have never heard such things about Nakamichi running too fast, because it’s just not true.

      There was talk about differences with the IEC standards for tape calibration, below is a quote from a highly renowned tape engineer.

      Quote

      Nakamichi conformed to the Prague, 1981 standard with their decks produced after the 582 series. However, since their playback heads were more efficient and precise than those commonly used for cassette playback, they did have a slightly increasing response beyond 10 kHz so that the upper limit of 18 kHz on the IEC test tapes registered 2.3 dB higher than the official standard.

      Nakamichi’s change came from a reduction in playback equalization with concomitant changes in reduced noise and increased record preemphasis to make up the difference.

      If you have a Sony and a post-582 Nakamichi, both aligned to the IEC standard and true azimuth, then the Nakamichi will sound slightly brighter–as long as you can hear out to 18 kHz and can distinguish a difference of 2.3 dB in output level. (Those who can hear the difference are typically too young to be able to afford a Nakamich–another one of life’s endless ironies.)

      End Quote

  3. Afner

    August 9, 2021 at 2:25 pm

    There are still many good cassette players out there in the wild that can be rescued for an easy belt change(if that). I have a few that I have rescued and paid $3-$6 and are very capable of delivering very good sound, even though they’re not dragons. My favorite format is not the cassette, but I sure can appreciate the medium, I grew up with is and was my first way of “owning” music that I cherished and still do to this day.

    • Ian White

      August 9, 2021 at 2:41 pm

      Which is why I think younger listeners are gravitating to it. Ownership is very important in the age of streaming…I mean music rentals.

      Ian White

  4. Chris

    August 15, 2021 at 9:01 am

    This article is interesting and I enjoyed reading it.

    I have to admit I never stopped using cassettes, I still have my Nakamichi CR7 which was always serviced every 2 – 3 years by Bowers & Wilkins Nakamichi UK untill they closed about a year ago.
    I kept my Sony Walkman which are WM-D6C, WM-DC2 and WM-DD9 plus I still have a stockpile of unopened TDK MA-XG90’s.
    I don’t look at cassettes through nostalgic eyes, it’s just a format I grew up with. I still use a Walkman daily for my commute to and from work.

    Do I think cassette is going to make a comeback like Vinyl (incidentally I never stopped buying and using LP’s either), no because no one is making any good players / recorders.
    Like has been said getting the older decks up and running is pricey plus can be a hit or miss in getting parts.

    When people ask me about getting into cassettes, I usually say unless you already have loads of cassettes you want to play or you have loads of money to get and service decent gear I say don’t bother.
    Have you seen the price of blank cassettes these days?
    As much I as I love cassettes, why would anyone want to get into a format that is on life support?

    • Ian White

      August 15, 2021 at 3:17 pm

      Chris,

      I think you make a lot of really valid points here. Unless you have money to burn on a restored NAK, Aiwa, NAD, or a Walkman in great shape — it’s hard to get into cassettes at this point.

      Ian White

      • Chris

        August 15, 2021 at 7:20 pm

        Getting into cassettes these days with anything less than at least a midrange deck is just going to perpetuate the myth that cassettes are hissy with bad W & F. That will definitely put off anyone used to digital, we definitely don’t want them to think that is the best cassette can do.

        • Ian White

          August 15, 2021 at 7:42 pm

          Chris,

          I agree. I suspect some smart entrepreneur will begin selling midrange and higher decks that have been cleaned up and make quite a profit.

          I’ve been looking online lately at better decks and the prices are definitely going up for certain models.

          Ian White

          • Chris

            August 15, 2021 at 7:52 pm

            From what I read online, it appears that Tascam & Teac are the only 2 companies making anything new that is near credible these days.

          • Ian White

            August 15, 2021 at 9:29 pm

            Chris,

            I recall seeing something from Denon and Onkyo two years ago in a press release but that was the last time anyone sent me anything.

            I suspect I’ll be getting a restored Nakamichi this year. As long as my wife doesn’t kill me first.

            Ian White

  5. Allen

    August 15, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    Cassettes were a part of our culture in the 70’s and 80’s. I can remember having them from the late 70’s to the late 80’s along with other formats. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the nostalgia bug bit me so I repurchased the last new deck I owned, a Sony TC-K870ES. Fast forward to today. I have something like 100 of the best cassette decks ever made. The one thing I can say is that they are much better than I remember them being. Oh… I have learned how to repair and service them myself. For the most part people are lazy. Too lazy to cobble together an analog mix tape and certain too lazy to be bothered with repairing anything themselves.

    I personally could care less what any else think of the format. I certainly do not seek anyone’s approval. I do this for myself and the joy it brings me. And for those realist naysayers…. I could liquidate right now and have doubled my invested money.

    Oh… and I have all those cassette recordings I made off the Dr. Demento show in the 1970’s.

    • Ian White

      August 15, 2021 at 3:22 pm

      Allen,

      You had me at Dr. Demento.

      You could sell a Nakamichi Dragon today and buy a new system with the proceeds.

      I’m always going to love cassettes because they were a very personal experience for me; I stayed up late at night recording radio programs as a teenager and it brought me enormous joy listening to them when I travelled around the globe post-college. Nobody ever asked me on the train to listen to my portable CD player.

      Do you have any Revox decks? I always loved those.

      Ian White

      • Sergio

        August 15, 2021 at 5:54 pm

        A very nice article and quite appreciated on Audio Cassette Revival group, where I shared it. I must say that I love to see young people enjoying this format, a special kind, as involving a lot of care. It’s not a very tough format, cassette can be destroyed in an instant by almost anything, but maybe this is the beauty of it. To own something you need to care about it.

        • Ian White

          August 15, 2021 at 6:11 pm

          Sergio,

          Much appreciated. I owned a Nak for almost 14 years and only desperation made me sell it. It’s a big part of our past and I will forever love audio cassettes. I think it’s my 2nd favorite format behind vinyl. The concept of “ownership” matters to this generation which is interesting because they grew up with free music.

          Ian White

      • Allen

        August 15, 2021 at 9:49 pm

        I do have a Nakamichi Dragon, Two ZX-9’s, Two ZX-7’s, a CR-7a, 700ZXE, two 1000ZXL’s and about a half dozen other Nakamichi’s. I do have a Revox B710MKII, B-215 and a B-215S. I built a cabinet early on to hold a few NEVER thinking I would fill it. It was full before I got the cabinet finished.
        https://imgur.com/ThomQaA

        • Ian White

          August 15, 2021 at 9:56 pm

          Allen,

          That’s just crazy. Besides the Dragon, what do you think is the best performing Nakamichi deck for the money and worth seeking out?

          I secretly love the big Revox. I worked in a radio station in Toronto from 1995 to 2000 that had a wall of Revox tape and reel-to-reel decks and I couldn’t stop playing with it. They sold all of it at some point.

          Best,
          Ian White

          • Chris

            August 15, 2021 at 10:29 pm

            Dragon is so overrated, it may be the most famous but it’s not that good. The sound is coloured, if you like the coloured sound then I guess it’s worth getting but the 1000ZXL stumps all over it.

            My Friend has a 1000ZXL and a Dragon, I own a CR-7. We had a shootout and the Dragon was way behind both the 1000ZXL and the CR-7.

            If you want something that will capture the sound of what you are feeding it and adding very little of it’s own character then the CR-7 is the one to get.

            The 1000ZXL is the better recorder of the 3, but for neutrality the CR-7 kicks them both into touch. The CR-7 is a better recorder and playback machine than the Dragon.

            If you are looking for a good Nakamichi and don’t want to pay too much, look for a CR-4.

            The only way for you to know is to find a good example of all 3 and listen for yourself.

            Put it this way I would not have a Dragon, even if you gave it to me for free.

  6. Alan

    August 15, 2021 at 5:35 pm

    If you own a vintage Nakamichi or other high-end cassette deck that’s been sitting around for ages it makes sense to get it serviced now while original or factory spec belts are still available.

    • Ian White

      August 15, 2021 at 6:09 pm

      Alan,

      I agree. If the format takes off again, the prices for parts are going to explode. And the inventory will vanish.

      Ian White

      • Chris

        August 15, 2021 at 10:59 pm

        It has already exploded as the sellers think anything cassette is a licence to print money, just look on eBay 🙂

  7. Eric

    August 16, 2021 at 9:36 am

    Presently, I cannot see cassettes ever making a formal comeback – unless of course big companies like Sony, Teac etc begin to manufacture new decks and tapes. That’s a big ask, gambling effectively hundreds of millions of dollars on a limited format?

    Personally, and obviously within hindsight, it may have been better if Philips (back in the day) defined the standards differently. Approximately 10% bigger cassette, 20% faster tape speed (say, and better Fr response), C120 tape thickness that makes it viable, wider tape and a 1/2 track option for better S/N.

    I am fortunate to have a degree in Electrical/Electronic Engineering and an interest that goes back to the early 1970s. I have repaired many decks and brought them back to 99.9% of their original specifications. So the fun, and interest continues for me. I still have many of my TDK and Sony from 1973!

    Regards.

    • Ian White

      August 16, 2021 at 2:14 pm

      Eric,

      I have to agree. In the best case scenario, we might see 1M new audio cassettes sold each year but that will be to kids and those under 30 who think they are cool to own. That same group will start looking online for used decks and lose interest when it becomes too expensive for them.

      That same group needs to have a stereo system to plug their deck into which is where the opportunity exists for a smart manufacturer.

      Ian White

  8. Joe C

    August 21, 2021 at 5:29 am

    I have to respectfully disagree with anyone claiming that price point is a significant barrier for young music fans who want to get into cassettes. A few trips around the local thrift/charity shops will yield a decent player in need of not much more than a belt swap, blank TDK Type 1s can be had for less than $2 USD, and the indie artists we love rarely charge more than $12 USD for a limited run tape whose proceeds mostly go back to the artist. On the whole this is a far cheaper hobby for the broader satisfaction, when compared to streaming.
    If you want to get into the wild end of the hobby (Revoxes, Naks and Type IV tapes) then you’ll pay in blood, but that’s hardly relevant to what us “kids” are after.

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