Cassette Day Makes Retro Modern Again

A retro music form proves its lasting appeal at the annual Cassette Store Day.

By David North

Cassette Store Day (CSD), an annual celebration of the compact cassette audio format and its long-lasting importance, takes place on Saturday, October 13 with four participating Chicago stores: Bric-a-Brac Records, Bucket O’Blood Books & Records, Curbside Books & Records, and Shuga Records.  

CSD began back in the United Kingdom in 2013 before making its way to the U.S. in 2016. The event invites artists to sell exclusive releases on the decades-old music format in the hope of supporting local music stores that still stock analog media. In past years, musical acts like The Flaming Lips, Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, Alex G, and others have participated in the limited production runs that make these tapes so valuable.  

This year features tapes by small record labels like Burger Records (who releases music exclusively on cassette) with Harnessed to Flesh by Tomorrow’s Tulips or 1980s Collection by Groovie Ghoulies as well as reissues of J Dilla’s posthumous Dillatronic and additions from ascendant artists like Frankie Cosmos and her landmark Zentrophy. A full list can be found on CSD’s website, but a few more highlights include: Sun Ra’s THE HELIOCENTRIC WORLDS OF SUN RA, VOL. 2, MED, BLUE & MADLIB’s BAD NEIGHBOR, and Promweather’s For the Birds on Hermit’s Hill.  

CSD borrows a lot from its analog cousin, Record Store Day, whose vinyl format has grown over 1,000 percent over the last 10 years, with 14 million LPs sold in 2017. Despite this rapid growth, vinyl still cannot match cassette tape’s 136 percent increase in sales over the last year thanks to new releases from Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, and the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. Cassette falls short of vinyl’s (and CD’s) raw sales numbers but is still enjoying a revival that is picking up steam and looking to get even bigger with this year’s celebration.  

CSD has its critics though, with many calling it a temporary fad based solely on nostalgia, with some going as far as comparing the revival of cassettes to Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of nativism. To many, the format is dead and it’s better it stays that way, with many rehashing tired arguments about tape’s inability to skip tracks, limited storage, clunky design, poor audio quality, and the silver bullet: horror stories about players eating tape.  

What most people don’t realize is that cassette tape never actually died. It has quietly been one of the most important data formats since its creation in 1967. 

With Chicago as one of the early adopters, the pre-recorded cassette industry has been partially sustained by prison populations. Inmates in most states are allowed to own clear, screwless cassettes, but not CDs or vinyl. Over the years, several duplicators and distributors have popped up, such as It’s All Love Cassettes & Necessities and Pack Central, with the purpose of selling new releases on cassette to prisoners when Universal agreed to allow reproduction of prison tapes if the distributor bought 250 copies of the album.   

Not only this, but the older brother to the cassette, magnetic reel tape (of which cassettes are just a miniature form factor), stores a majority of the data collected in the world, ranging from movies, to scientific data, to national archives, with single tape libraries that can hold 278 petabytes of data. That’s over a thousand times as much as the average laptop’s one terabyte hard drive can hold. Tape has, and continues to be, the preferred medium for data storage because of its efficient energy consumption, reliability, security, and above all, its price.  

The cheap cost of tape makes it a favorite for independent musicians who can’t afford a vinyl pressing but want something more “official-looking” than a CD for their analog-listening crowd. Blank tapes are still being made by companies like Maxwell, which can be purchased for around three dollars, easily recorded duplicated by old studio equipment, and sold for around five dollars.  

Even larger labels, like Sub Pop, whose artists include Beach House, Clipping., Shabazz Palaces, and more, have made cassette releases a staple of their business; Nearly every album having a cassette release as well as anniversary reissues that populate their online store.  

Never has there been a better time to get into collecting and listening to cassette tapes, an audio format that has stood the test of time and continues to question mainstream assumptions about its irrelevancy. CSD is a chance to celebrate the ongoing revival of cassette tape from its temporary underground status and an opportunity to snag some exclusive releases from your favorite artists.