A Little Respect For Audio Cassette Tapes
If you were one of the unfortunate few who did NOT see Erasure in concert at the House of Blues on Friday, Oct. 17, I recommend you immediately dust off your CD copy of “Hits! The Very Best of Erasure” and boogie down in the middle of your living room like I did in the 9th grade when “Oh L’Amour” hit #9 on Billboard’s “Hot Dance Music” charts.
The last time I saw the English synthpop duo perform was on May 9, 2005, at TwiRoPa, about 4 months before the venue imploded due to Hurricane Katrina. Fast-forward almost a decade, and Erasure front man and vocalist Andy Bell and keyboardist Vince Clarke still looked and sounded on top of their collective game. Despite having both hips replaced, Bell bounced around the stage like a reigning Dance Dance Revolution champ during Happy Hour at Oz on Bourbon Street.
When I got home from the concert I pulled out my Erasure CDs “Erasure,” “Cowboy,” “Other People’s Songs,” “Nightbird,” “Light at the End of the World,” “Pop! The First 20 Hits” and “Hits! The Very Best of Erasure,” but I knew I had more.
I then checked out my cassettes.
I guess I just outed myself – I still own cassettes, and not just a few. I have about 600 – some are music, some are mixes, some are bootlegs, some are blank for future dubbing (who am I kidding), some hold my taped interviews and the others are copies of all my radio shows when I was a jazz DJ at WTUL 91.5 FM and WWOZ 90.7 FM.
Nestled in between Enya’s “Watermark” and Eurythmics’ “We Too Are One,” I found 4 Erasure tapes, all on life support because they looked like I had played them to death.
I wanted to hear “A Little Respect” off of my copy of “The Innocents” and see if the reels on my “Wonderland,” “The Circus” and “The Two Ring Circus” still spun, but realized I had nothing to play them on. Not too long ago we all had boomboxes, Sony Walkmans and cassette decks built into our stereos and our cars, but all those things seemed to have disappeared.
So what happened to all of our cassette tapes?
“I always listen to them,” Matthew Knowles, owner of Domino Sound Record Shack on 2557 Bayou Rd., said. “They’re great because you can throw them on the floor of your car, and they won’t break and they still work.”
Knowles wouldn’t quantify the size of his private collection, but it sounded like he had way more than I did.
He said there are about 500 audio cassette tapes currently on sale at his store ranging in price from $2 to $4. Most them are new, he said, “dead stock” from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He sells used ones too, and even though there’s still a market for them he said it’s hard to find machines that still play them.
“We’re selling more than we used to,” he said about the music cassettes that make up about 5% of overall sales at his store. “It’s a good medium, they’re cheap, durable, the sound quality isn’t the best, but you can make your own.”
Rewind to the rise and fall of the once-popular medium. According to Billboard Magazine, sales of pre-recorded music cassettes in the U.S. dropped from 442 million in 1990 to 274,000 by 2007. Pitchfork.com reported only 34,000 were sold in 2009. In 2011, the revised Oxford English Dictionary even omitted the words “cassette tape” from its “Concise” version.
Suddenly, as quick as an auto-reverse, cassette tapes seem to be making a comeback.
On Saturday, Sept. 27, many record stores around the country celebrated “Cassette Store Day,” a spin-off of April’s global “Record Store Day.” This throwback fete was hosted locally at Euclid Records on 3301 Chartres St. The 4-hour event drew only about 15 people, but it showed there was still some sort of interest in the store’s varied analog offerings, going from $1 to $10.
Performers like Foxygen, They Might Be Giants, Townes Van Zandt, Robyn Hitchcock and The Circle Jerks all released product on cassette for the nation-wide festivities.
You can dismiss the compact cassette tape as being a mere nostalgic retro-collectable, but they’re still cheaper than vinyl, and can hold 120 minutes worth of music while you’re lucky to get 80 minutes onto a CD. Plus, they provide an affordable DIY option for musical bands, big or small, to produce, reissue and distribute limited release boutique products.
According to a recent study conducted by ICM Research in the U.K., physical format purchases are on the rise – 10% of all music purchases were vinyl and 5% cassettes. They also found a majority of music buyers across the pond still preferred to buy music they can hold in their hands rather than something digital.
Back in May, Sony debuted the zenith of magnetic tape storage, able to hold 148 GB an inch or 185 TBs, on a cassette sized spool. That means one cassette tape could hold 500,000 CDs worth of music. Where was that technology when I was crafting my own mixed tapes, desperately trying to squeeze 12 songs onto each side on a 90-minute Maxell, Memorex or TDK?
Boy, I miss my auto fade…
“People have a positive reaction to them,” Michael Bevis, a customer service rep at Skully'z Recordz, said about tapes. “It’s a comfortable format. I sold 10 to a collector last Thursday.”
Bevis said there are about 100 audio cassette tapes on display at his 907 Bourbon St. store, and they sell whatever they can find.
“Right now it’s a niche market mainly due to the fact the hardware is not available,” he said. “You need to have a vintage set-up at home or a vintage car with a tape deck in it.”
Bevis, a musician and DJ, regards the cassette as the “odd little brother” of music format history, yet he said when a 40-something-year-old buyer spies the tape rack in the store, they get a familiar look on their face.
“They all say something like, ‘I didn’t know they still made these,’ or ‘Man, I made a mixed tape once,’ etc. You hear a playback of lots of stories from bygone days.”
Bevis said most of their cassettes are new and are still wrapped in cellophane, but they also buy and sell used ones. The demand is not super high, he said, but they’re priced between $4.99 and $12.99.
“I’m finding with cassettes that they haven’t hit the collectors’ market yet like vinyl,” Bevis said, “They’re still a fetish item.”
When the “kids” come into Skully’z, Bevis said they think the tapes are cool because their parents had them, and they swap them like trading cards. They say they’re easy to keep, are portable and cheap. Unlike a digital download, cassettes still boast cover art and lyrics and liner notes. He said the customer he sold 10 to last week walked out of his store with a bag full of music for a nominal price.
“Once the music labels catch on and see there’s a buck to be made, I’m sure they’ll start making cassettes again,” Bevis said. “I’m interested to see how far bands can push the format.”
There is no shortage of audio cassettes for sale on eBay. There you’ll find single cassettes, cassettes sold in lots, imports and rare, special limited editions. A quick search reveals a Lou Reed “Live” 1981 recording going for $1.93. There’s a lot of 7 Queen cassettes, including the “Flash Gordon” movie soundtrack, for $14.96. A Pink Floyd sealed “Dark Side of the Moon” is selling for $12.95.
When I searched for Erasure, who has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, I found I made a good investment. My “Wonderland” is priced at $15.84 on eBay. There are multiple listings for “Two Ring Circus” ranging from $6.42 to $14.99. A copy of my “The Circus” is being billed as “rare” and selling for $13.20. And there’s a Canadian version of “The Innocents” going for $11.88.
Last week it was announced the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie soundtrack, “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” is going to be released in cassette format on Nov. 28. It’s the first cassette the Disney Music Group has released since 2003. The movie is based on the Marvel Comic’s superhero team, and its soundtrack includes faves from the ‘70’s by David Bowie, The Runaways, Elvin Bishop and The Jackson Five.
An 8-Track revival?
Renewed street cred for my 45s?
Don’t laugh, but I still have boxes of those, too.
Domino Sound Record Shack
2557 Bayou Rd.
New Orleans, LA 70119
3301 Chartres St.
New Orleans, LA 70117
907 Bourbon St.
New Orleans, LA 70116