Brooklyn, NEW YORK- Last September, the first international Cassette Store Day was held to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this technology. In New York City, obscure labels released cassettes of obscure bands in small numbers to celebrate the occasion, garnering attention from the media. Yet, cassettes on the independent music scene are not something new.
Small bands and labels haven’t abandoned tapes. In fact, cassettes are flourishing in the niche market of indie music, unbeknown to systems that track mainstream music sales.
“Our tapes have always done well for us,” says Sean Ragon, 33, owner of Heaven Street, a record and cassette store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “We carry a lot of things that are DIY [do it yourself], that are home-made by people, and as a result we have a lot of tapes.”
Heaven Street opened two years ago and is well known for its cassettes. Ragon says tapes have become “trendy” again, not only because it is easy for bands to produce them at home. He says that unlike CD-R’s, tapes are not perceived as tacky and disposable.
These artisanal objects do not have bar codes and are not counted by information and sales tracking systems such as Nielsen SoundScan. Since no large record label company has released new cassette tapes in years, SoundScan no longer includes cassette tape sales in its year-end reports —in fact, it stopped doing so at the turn of the century.
In 2013 the number of cassettes sold in the U.S. was 54,000 according to SoundScan —a drop in the ocean of 289.4 million albums, both digital and physical, sold that year. Still, this is only a partial count, since sales of homemade cassettes by small labels are not being tracked. Cassette tapes, although visible in shops like Heaven Street that cater to a niche audience, appear to be inconspicuous in the mainstream.
Still, new releases are only a fraction of the market for cassette tapes. In secondhand music shops old tapes are also in demand. Rainbow Music 2002 Ltd, a small store in Manhattan’s East Village, has cassettes stacked to the ceiling. There is barely room to move around and clients have to walk inside one at a time. A 72-year-old man perches on top of a chair searching among his wares. He calls himself “The Birdman.”
“The Japanese are very heavy into rap cassettes,” he says. “That’s the main thing they buy as much as I can find for them.” Some things are not on the Internet or are too expensive, he adds. “On the internet maybe they sell for more. I don’t charge more. I charge a set price.”
He sells each cassette for a couple of dollars.
There is now a renewed interest for cassettes among members of a generation that was not even born during their heyday in the 1980s.
Adam Jurs, 22, is a barista and amateur musician who lives in Bushwick. He says that he became a frequent user of cassette tapes after a band that he likes began releasing albums in this format. In 2011 he bought the Coma Cinema album “Blue Suicide”.
“Once I got it in the mail, I rummaged through thrift stores, found a way to play it and it was awesome,” he says. “Since then, a lot of artists I was into started releasing cassettes, and I got into having cassettes kind of out of nowhere.”
The paradox of this indie music resurgence of cassettes is that the tapes are not known for sound quality. Chad Bernhard, 41, a musician and sound engineer, was surprised when he received an order for five cassettes of his band, Things Outside the Skin, from “a guy in Australia.”
“I don’t understand why people still want them,” he says.