Analog Nostalgia: Cassette Tapes Are Back, Baby

An industry you thought was long-dead is thriving amongst a world of streaming music.

Photo by 蔡 世宏 on Unsplash

When are we allowed to feel nostalgia for the past? I suspect it’s once we begin to compare ‘what is’ to ‘what once was.’ That could be at age 15 or 25. It all depends on your perspective.

Feeling nostalgic about a time of life is common. Previous years when we had fewer responsibilities. Less stress. More time with family.

Sometimes that nostalgia refers to possessions. Or experiences. Cherished memories we love to revisit.

Introduced to the world in 1963, the cassette tape is most definitely one of those items. There will always be love for a vinyl record, but cassette tapes have an entire personality of their own. It wasn’t just the enjoyment of music either.

It was the customization factor.

The memories sealed in Sharpie.

It was the mixtape.

Innovation and technology have an interesting way of becoming their own worst enemy. The introduction of the compact disc in 1982 was a major hit to cassette tape manufacturers and fans.

Fast forward to 2020 and we’re looking at mp3 downloads as a thing of the past. Steaming owns everything. Yet, from the dusty remains of Sony Walkmans and Napster, the cassette tape has reemerged.

Analog Attraction

Did you experience the joy of the cassette craze in the 80’s? If so, you’ll remember some of the nuanced characteristics.

The resounding belief is that the sound quality of cassettes was excellent. Some claim they would rival vinyl LPs. (I disagree.) They were, in fact, analog, recorded by the same kind of source. It’s easy to understand the attraction to that sound.

There were also downsides. Challenges, we’ll call them. Tapes were far from tanks. Their cases were prone to cracking or warping. The tape inside would happily become unwound if you looked at it the wrong way. And heat. Left inside your car on a hot midwest summer day could lead to disaster.

Let’s not forget the need to rewind. Bookended by the ability to pick up right where you left off. Usually.

Yet, the versatility was definitely there. You could record on a blank tape. You could record right from the radio if you had the right player. But the real showstopper was the mixtape. Oh, the mixtape. From specialty mixes for road trips to the one-of-a-kind gift to your high school crush. They did it all.

I’m With The Band

The 90’s weren’t kind to the cassette industry. CDs rolled on to the scene hard and soon it seemed like sales were heading to the superior media for good.

The early 2000’s arrived and the digital medium came online. CDs were still filling large cases in peoples’ cars and homes. There were some holdouts still rewinding their cassette tapes.

In 2009 Pearl Jam decided it was time to release the 20th-anniversary edition of their album Ten. Their desire to include a CD, a cassette, a vinyl record, and a scrapbook was intense. It also meant finding a way to produce a massive number of that album on cassette.

Enter Steve Stepp and National Audio Company. One of the few remaining cassette makers in the country and the only one making the actual magnetic tape. It’s almost like he knew this was on the horizon.

Pearl Jam bought 20,000 tapes from Stepp and they were all sold in presale.

Following that revival, Smashing Pumpkins followed suit in the late 2000’s. And the 2014 premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy was preceded by Disney securing a massive cassette contract.

All this lead to a 2017 report reflecting cassette sales up 136%. Even Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber jumped on the bandwagon. After 54 years of ups and downs, look who’s back in town. Don’t call it a comeback.

Be Kind, Rewind

Ask any audiophile where the best sound quality comes from and you’ll likely get a few different answers. But it’s not about what media you choose.

The joy of embracing nostalgia has never been about perfection. Often we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses. It always seems better than reality.

Perfection is not the goal. We aim to recreate emotions and resurface memories. Replay mixtapes that are impossible to recreate.

The hiss from the poor recording quality. The inability to skip tracks quickly. This is what it meant to be present. Present in the act of listening to music. And enjoying the company that came with it.

Hard media isn’t coming back. But the value of it and other imperfect memories will never go out of style.

Art director, tech geek, and house shoe enthusiast. ✖ I write about creativity, personal growth, and productivity, one existential crisis at a time.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store