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Cassettes Are Having a Moment: What It Means for the Format to Have Big Artists Joining the Revival

Courtesy of RecordingTheMasters

Why artists like Maren Morris and Sturgill Simpson are reissuing albums on tape for the first time — and how it's being done.

Scott Register, distribution A&R at ThinkIndie, recalls attending industry conferences in the early 2000s and revealing that vinyl sales were steadily increasing at independent retailers. "There would literally be laughter," he says.

Two decades later, those laughs have been stifled by a format that in 2020 generated $626 million, an increase of 28.7% by value year-over-year, according to the RIAA’s year-end report. Last December alone, weekly vinyl album sales hit a new record high — 1.445 million, up 9% from the previous week — following the holiday shopping surge. It became the biggest week for vinyl sales since 1991, when MRC Data began electronically tracking music sales.

Now, Register is hoping cassettes will follow suit. He says ThinkIndie, which was founded by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores in 1999, has already had some success distributing the format, and believes things are heading in the right direction for a similar resurgence. Perhaps the biggest indicator? Many stores he works with can't keep boomboxes in stock, old or new, likely because they come with a cassette deck.

So, late last year, when ThinkIndie was approached about partnering on a limited-edition reissue series of titles never-before sold on cassette, it was a no brainer. In addition to noticing a spike in the format, Register says, "Looking at the titles [the labels were offering], every artist [has a] big fan base."

Some of those titles include Sturgill Simson’s Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions, Major Lazer’s Peace Is The Mission and Maren Morris’ GIRL, all arriving April 30.

In 1994, about 30 years after the cassette tape was first invented, 246 million cassette albums were sold (of an overall 615 million albums that were released) according to MRC Data. In 2018, only 219,000 cassette album were sold, though that number indicated an increase by 23% from the year prior. In 2020, on the online music marketplace Discogs alone, cassette album sales were up a third, totaling 282,798.

Register admits that in the early days of the vinyl resurgence, the problem wasn’t demand but rather where and how so many records would get pressed. When it comes to cassettes, there is one manufacturer that has been ready for this moment since 2015: France’s RecordingTheMasters.

Jean-Luc Renou, CEO of RecordingTheMasters and its parent company, Mulann, says he noticed a spike in cassettes among average consumers — not just recording studio professionals that work with magnetic tape — in 2017. He says by 2019, they were manufacturing around 9,000 cassette tapes a month. Now, they are at 30,000 a month with the capacity to produce 10 times that volume. The turnaround time from when a label might place an order to when that order may arrive is just 3-4 weeks, shorter than the average 5-weeks time for vinyl, which during the pandemic has, in most cases, more than doubled. (Packaging is a large factor of that shorter turnaround time for cassette albums.)

To coincide with the first-time release of new titles on cassette, RecordingTheMasters is also making its B-1000 Portable Cassette Player available in the U.S. for the first time (it arrived in France last year). Looking ahead, another set of reissues is already being planned for the end of the year and Renou says they are hoping to secure more partnerships going forward and expand into e-commerce to increase revenue.

"I'm curious to see what artists and genres will take to it in the beginning," says Register. "And I'm curious to see even with the ones we're working with which are going to stick. I'm hoping all of them will, you just don't know exactly. I know the stores, they've got their fingers crossed."

A big driver outside of independent retailers, though, is still on pause: the merch table. Register says that’s a big part of helping a format come back and also judging its popularity. "I can remember when vinyl started out-selling CDs at the merch tables, that was a huge deal," Register continues. "So, you know, hopefully people will see cassettes and say, 'Hey, I got to have that, too.'"

As Renou says, that "I see it, I want it" mentality should extend to artists as well: "Musicians and artists [using cassettes for album promotion] will probably look around and say, 'Why not? Why don’t I try to have something on cassette as well?'"

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