From the shelves of Urban Outfitters to the celebratory Cassette Store Day, tapes are in the middle of a renaissance. But the return of the humble cassette isn’t just hipster nonsense – they’ve remained a vital medium for DIY labels decade after decade. The problem? The vintage technology is increasingly hard to get hold of – and expensive. Andrew Friedman meets the hoarders ensuring the future of tape swapping and finds out if mass production could soon return.
It’s impossible for Jason Armitage of Roots Forward Records to separate his love of hip-hop from his love of blank tapes. Armitage first got into rap some three decades ago through his track coach, who routinely shared his tape dubs of New York radio shows during the genre’s formative years. When Armitage started DJing and buying records, the endgame was always mixtapes, dozens of them, for himself and whoever was interested. When digital recording became more easily accessible, he stayed loyal to cassettes. To this day he records his weekly radio show to tape. This dedication to home-taping has made Armitage something of a blank tape connoisseur: “Half of them I collect just for the sake of having them. I don’t open them or anything, I keep them in their original packaging.”
A couple of years ago, Armitage founded the Blank Tape Collectors group on Facebook and found he was not alone in his hobby. The group started off modestly — mostly fellow Canadian DJs — but has grown steadily in the last few months to its current membership of over 200. These collectors, located around the world, use the group to share pictures of their collections, inquire about unfamiliar brands and banter about their favorite tapes. The group is admittedly small, but the scene is young.
“Jason’s group is like the first of its kind,” says Philadelphia-based DJ and “preserver of everything” Skeme Richards. “The [blank] tape world is definitely out there, but people are still trying to get connected.”
Cassettes are indeed having a renaissance. According to Nielsen’s figures, album sales on tape shot up by 74% in 2016, from 74,000 in 2015 to a still modest 129,000 last year. Urban Outfitters has been the most visible outlet; adjoining its vinyl selection, physical and online stores now boast an array of new tapes by everyone from Justin Bieber to Run The Jewels. But while it would be easy to write off the return of the cassette as hipster nonsense, tapes have always remained an important medium for DIY artists.
“The infrastructure for the mass production of blank tapes all but collapsed when CD became the dominant medium”
Tape is an extremely cost-effective way to put out your music, either by dubbing copies at home or sending them out for professional duplication. (As Texas punk fixture Danny Barnes told the Austin Chronicle in 2013, “If you’re a punk band in Galveston and you know you’re gonna sell 25 copies of something, you can do a lot better making a tape really low-budget, then giving away the download.”) The until-recently laughable idea of finding new tapes for sale in a music store is no longer so funny, thanks in part to a group of UK labels who launched an annual Cassette Store Day in 2013 to promote the medium. (To their credit, Urban Outfitters has participated in Cassette Store Day for at least the last two years.)
But Armitage’s Facebook group is about blank tapes, not albums – and it highlights the conspicuous absence of blanks from the cassette revival. Urban Outfitters currently sells three-packs of 60-minute blanks (in green, pink and yellow shells) of indeterminate sourcing, and a handful of chain stores like Wal-Mart and Poundland reportedly stock their own brands. Many of the same duplication plants that serve the DIY community also sell home-wound virgin tape (also often available in a variety of colorful shells). But anyone of a certain age will remember how ubiquitous blank tapes used to be – every record shop, electronics dealer and even many grocery and drug stores used to stock a wide a range of brands and lengths. Today they are available only sporadically, even where new tapes are sold, and certainly not in the variety they once were.
The issue isn’t the actual availability of blank tapes. They once sold by the millions and the ample deadstock from previous decades has found its way into the market, whether on eBay, in second-hand stores or through savvy distributors.
“We are pretty much selling all the [branded tapes] we can get a hold of,” says Alan Williams of the UK-based duplication and media company Tapeline. He started stocking “branded” blank tapes (as opposed to the “unbranded” tapes for more professional uses) in the early 2000s. As CDs overtook tape, Williams saw inquiries for branded tapes increase as other suppliers got out of the business, and wisely decided to pick up the slack. Since then, prices for tapes like the adequate but common TDK D90 have jumped from around 40 pence (80 cents) in the 90s to as high as £1.85 ($2.30) each today.
“We are pretty much selling all the [branded tapes] we can get a hold of”Alan Williams, Tapeline
But the infrastructure for the mass production of blank tapes all but collapsed when CD became the dominant medium around the turn of the millennium. Companies like Memorex and Maxell, whose ad campaigns once made them synonymous with home recording, folded or were acquired by better-diversified competitors. The production of “pancake”, the bulk magnetic tape which is cut and wound into cassettes, languished as well. A 2005 Library of Congress study on the long-term availability of tape components revealed a dire situation: Seihan and SKM, once reliable pancake producers in Korea, were both found to be “financially unstable [and] technically bankrupt,” while a complicated tangle of European sources for tape had questionable futures. By all accounts, the only company currently producing raw bulk tape is the (hilariously named) ACME in China.
The state of the blank tape makes the name of Armitage’s Facebook group a bit of a misnomer. “Blank Tape Collecting” implies the acquisition of hard-to-find pieces as an end in and of itself, but the hunt for good recording stock is equally important. For example, both high-end Type IV and affordable but excellent Type II cassettes are highly desirable as recording stock – but they will likely never be produced again for environmental reasons. Type IV tapes like the Sony Super Metal Master and the TEAC Studio 52G are some of the best blanks ever produced and highly collectible, but aren’t practical for day-to-day use. Originally retailing for about $12, they now go for upwards of $100 on eBay. Type II tapes like the TDK SA90 and XLII, on the other hand, sound great and stand up to repeat usage. They’re now being hoarded by collectors. Once available for $2, their price is now up around $7 each.
While it’s hard to say if the demand for blank tapes is outpacing the amount of deadstock available, the future of tape (and blank tape) relies on attracting long-term investment into the actual production. Fortunately, the Springfield, Missouri-based National Audio Company is on the job. A giant in the game already, the company produces 95% of the audio cassettes in the western hemisphere, says NAC president Steve Stepp. When the tape business collapsed and CDs rose to prominence, NAC saw an opportunity, diligently purchasing all the pancake it could find (as well as tape-related hardware) from other companies abandoning the business.
As cassette sales continue to rise, NAC is trying to stay a step ahead once again by making its own pancake. It recently brought its own facility online and is currently in the process of internal testing. And while the company has no active plans to jump into the retail blank tape game, Stepp is aware of the demand and the opportunity. “Our motto,” adds Stepp, “is ‘forward in all directions’.”
Given the importance of the blank tape in audio history, from hip-hop mixtape culture to the panic over home-taping, there’s an interesting disconnect between the music industry and the tape business. After all, the ability to record whatever you wanted was tape’s biggest selling point when it hit the market in the 60s. While it had an edge on convenience and portability, it would be years before tape could hang with vinyl sonically.
However, the way cassettes democratized audio was nothing short of revolutionary. Some of the medium’s most important early adopters were American soldiers in Vietnam fed up with the military radio’s sanitized selections, while in Iran before the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeni garnered support by circulating tapes of his sermons. Tapes fertilised scenes and brought fans together, whether through swapping bootlegs of Grateful Dead sets or sharing recordings of the pioneering early radio shows that dared to go strictly hip-hop.
For now, blank tapes are in limbo, somewhere between tool and art, waiting for the forces of culture and capitalism to work out how to make the technology of yesterday viable into the future.