Cassettes Are Making a Comeback, But Can Production Keep Up?
While the format's popularity pales next to vinyl, it's enjoyed a 443% sales increase in the last seven years – good news for a small number of manufacturers.
In late 2020, when Eyeball Records co-owners Zac Nadile and Alex Saavedra decided to put out small runs of cassette tapes for indie artists like one-man synth band N8NOFACE and Canadian hip-hop producer blackwinterwells, they called around to see who made these plastic throwbacks. They wound up with quotes from five different companies — all of whom turned out to be brokers leading to the same manufacturing source.
“It’s a man-behind-the-curtain-type deal,” says Saavedra.
“I’m imagining total Wizard of Oz things, like dude in a basement bought the final manufacturing for cassettes in the ’80s, and finally, his time has come,” Nadile adds. “Like the dude who bought a Gremlin, and finally it’s worth money.”
While that isn’t exactly the truth about the cassette manufacturer, Nick Keshishian of ENAS Media, it’s not far off. As cassettes have come back over the past seven years — from 81,000 U.S. sales in 2015 to 440,000 last year, a 443% increase, according to Luminate — a small number of manufacturers, including ENAS, have capitalized on the mini-boom after either anticipating or lucking into the market.
Keshishian opened his Pasadena, Calif., company in 1985, at first making blank cassettes for churches to record sermons to distribute to their congregations. As cassettes grew into one of the music industry’s major formats — growing from 61 million unit sales in 1978 to 450 million in 1988, according to the RIAA — he expanded in the spiritual-music market and began working with independent record labels, first manufacturing tapes, then expanding to CDs.
Even through the record industry’s shift from selling physical units to downloads and streaming, sales remained strong until 2017, when Keshishian’s customers in the religion and education industries finally gave up on CDs and sales declined. Keshishian closed that year — for one month. Then, he says, “Everybody was calling and asking for cassettes, so I reopened.”
The cassette market has slowly come together to meet the unexpected demand. Splashy names such as Taylor Swift and Maren Morris have put out larger runs, as has My Morning Jacket, which recently released 1,000 cassettes. Megan Thee Stallion also recently released 10,000 tapes, while Charlie Kaplan‘s Tapehead City label, run out of his New York apartment, recently helped Death Row Records sell nearly 20,000 combined cassette reissues of classic albums by 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Keshishian, Kaplan and others who work in the space say the demand is similar to the vinyl market in the mid-2000s. “It’s tough. The distributors aren’t fully set up for cassette. Some are. It’s limited,” says Kaplan, who goes by the nickname Charlie Tapes. “It’s not set up quite as organized as vinyl. It’s a little bit more scrappy.”
In addition to ENAS Media, top cassette manufacturers include National Audio Company in Springfield, Mo., and Recording the Masters (RTM) in France. National Audio has been operating since 1968 and reacted to the cassette revival of the past seven years by recovering equipment from closed manufacturers such as Ampex in Opelika, Ala. The company wound up reconditioning massive machines, like one that is 63 feet long, weighs 20 tons and is “built to last,” according to National Audio owner Steve Stepp, who has worked at the company since the beginning and took it over from his late father. After music cassettes died in the late ’90s, National Audio kept busy with cassettes for instructional materials, spoken-word bibles and Library of Congress work until indie bands and labels came calling as early as 2006. “Suddenly, we were back in business,” Stepp says.
RTM, based in Avranches about 220 miles west of Paris, has made magnetic tape for nearly a century, focusing recently on studio reel-to-reels and credit-card strips. But after a group of European investors, some of whom ran indie labels, bought the company a year and a half ago, the new owners are “actually making it a proper music company,” says Neal Birnie, RTM’s London-based creative director, who also runs labels Day Dreamer and Night Dreamer, which represent jazz musicians Gary Bartz and Maisha, among others.
ENAS’ Keshishian is the most reclusive of the cassette manufacturers. “He just gets the job done, and really professional, like no filter,” says Matthew McQueen, founder of Los Angeles indie label Leaving Records. “There’s not a lot of frills with Nick’s stuff.” Born in Armenia, Keshishian came to the U.S. with his family, looking for opportunity, in 1978. As he learned to speak English, he played a couple of instruments in a band specializing in Armenian, Greek, Russian and Spanish songs, and found work at a cassette company — a vocation he has continued ever since. “That’s what I live off,” he says.
Some in the record business consider cassettes a fad — reps for all three major labels did not respond to interview requests. “There’s a small and dedicated cohort of people that buy it and enjoy it. I don’t see it ever taking a major share of the market again,” says Ben Swanson, COO of Secretly Group, which has put out small cassette runs for Mitski, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bon Iver and about two-thirds of the top independent label’s overall releases. “We’ll do anywhere from 200 to 1,000 copies, depending on the artist. Kind of meeting the fans where they are.”
But the cassette business is stronger than the Luminate numbers suggest, according to Greg Frehner, co-owner and president of Toronto-based duplication.ca, since much of the market is due to indie bands selling tapes at merch tables, which are often not counted. Unlike ENAS and RTM, which manufacture the blank magnetic tape (a.k.a. “pancakes”), duplication.ca buys the non-magnetic tape components, assembles the cassettes and sells them to bands and labels. Frehner estimates the company ships 1 million units yearly, in part due to major-label orders. “It’s becoming a routine activity now, for some of them,” he says. “It’s been a steady increase.”
Cassettes cost anywhere from $3-7 apiece, depending on how elaborate and artistic buyers want to get, according to Stephanie Hudacek, president of Soundly, a Nashville distributor that puts out tapes by My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers, Major Lazer, Maren Morris and others. Customers can experiment with printed “J-Cards” containing liner notes and photos, and, like Swift, Megan the Stallion and other stars recently, order plastics of different colors. A reason for the recent boom, Hudacek says, is slower vinyl turnaround times due to pandemic supply-chain issues. “It’s just cool to have a thing,” she says.
“It’s still a novelty-niche item. [With] these cassette-duplication services, the minimum run is 50 tapes, so you can experiment. It’s an accessible entry-level point for artists and labels,” McQueen adds. “I still get questions: ‘Why are you making tapes? I still have a bunch of tapes in my attic.’ But it’s more cost-accessible. And I love the sound quality and personal touch.”