Sacramento's total rewind: Cassettes make a comeback

You're going to need that old tape deck to enjoy some of this city's most exciting new music

Dal Basi, owner of Phono Select, says certain genres sell better than others when it comes to the cassette revival. Sorry, Billy Joel, but it’s true.

Dal Basi, owner of Phono Select, says certain genres sell better than others when it comes to the cassette revival. Sorry, Billy Joel, but it’s true.

Photo by lisa baetz

Learn more about International Cassette Store Day at

Forget about the vinyl revival. Instead, it’s time to get out that old Walkman, because cassettes are back. Or so have proclaimed numerous music and pop culture writers for the likes of Vice, AV Club and, even, Newsweek.

It’s not just hipster buzz or speculation.

Even as streaming options such as Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music gain users, more titles are going old-school with myriad artists putting out cassette releases and even major labels Sony Music and Universal Music Group getting in on the game. Tape manufacturer National Audio Company reported selling 10 million units last year, with 70 percent of that number going to label releases and 30 percent sold as blank tapes.

In this post-digital era while some are still marveling at the growing interest in vinyl—in 2014 vinyl sales were at 9.2 million, a 54 percent increase from the year before, according to Nielsen—cassettes are thriving.

One of the top sellers on this year’s Record Store Day was Metallica’s cassette re-issue of early demo No Life ’Til Leather, which sold nearly 3,000 copies.

But tapes don’t always have to share the spotlight. Like its vinyl counterpart, the format also has its own retail holiday: This year International Cassette Store Day lands on October 17 and will boast more than a hundred special tape releases including AWOLNATION’s Run, Motorhead’s Bad Magic, Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound and Green Day’s Dookie.

There are plenty of tape-only labels, including several Bay Area-based imprints such as Two Thousand Tapes and Beach House Tapes, both of which specialize in noise and experimental cassette releases.

Locally, they’re having a moment, too, with some bands switching to the format, area tape labels putting them out and local record shops stocking new and old releases to sell.

And they are selling. Music fans and musicians alike, it seems, have varying reasons for choosing the analog format.

“I love the disposable quality of tapes,” explains Scott Miller of the Sacramento indie trio Bananas. The band is getting its entire catalog re-pressed on cassette by the Fullerton-based Burger Records.

“It’s just tactile enough. It’s almost like it hits this weird bull’s-eye between something you have and can look at and being sort of disposable,” he says.

Miller says one of his favorite aspects of cassettes is also the medium’s biggest restriction: How cumbersome it can seem to fast-forward through to a specific song—an act that potentially forces the listener to hear an entire album instead of cherry-picking their favorite songs.

“That to me is a lost experience,” Miller explains. “Listening to music on tapes, it taps into what it was like getting into music when I was younger.”

While some may point to nostalgia for the format’s resurgence, that’s certainly not the whole story.

Unlike vinyl, which obsessive music fanatics continue to collect for its supposed superior audio experience, tapes are generally associated with lower audio quality and hiss. But it’s not just older folk with fond memories fueling the uptick in sales, many new buyers are too young to have had much (or any) experience with them in the first place.

Local punk band Dog Party falls into that category. The band, which features sisters Lucy and Gwen Giles, recently released a cassette version of its album Vol. 4 with Burger Records. The sisters say they’re fans of the format they call “mini-VHS.”

“[Cassettes] are a nice, cheap way to listen to music,” says drummer Lucy Giles, still a high schooler.

Although the format’s been growing in popularity among ska, reggae and even New Age artists, ground zero for the tape revival arguably lies with garage-rock and other underground genres. Burger Records, a low-fi bubblegum-pop label, was one of the first to re-embrace the analog format when it launched in 2007.

At the time almost no other artist or label was putting out cassettes, but Burger’s founders say they realized many cars still had tape decks. Plus, there were still all of those old stereos and boomboxes, easy to find in thrift stores or on eBay.

Now Burger has released approximately 800 tape titles to date—compared to only 100 on vinyl. The label is even developing its own version of the classic Walkman, dubbed the “Burger Buddy.”

Burger co-founder Sean Bohrman cites the risk versus expense factor as key.

“It cost less to make them, we can sell them for cheaper. That’s how some people discover new music, by taking a chance. They can’t do that with $20 records,” says Bohrman.

Burger’s success has inspired many smaller label owners, like Hans White who decided to exclusively release tapes for his Sacramento-based label Pleasant Screams.

Since Pleasant Screams’ 2010 launch, White has released tapes mostly by local bands such as Pets and the Sun Valley Gun Club, as well as cassette pressings of previously released albums by bigger national acts such as the Phoenix-based duo Andrew Jackson Jihad’s Can’t Maintain.

“I like to find an album that I really like, and … if the artist is interested, I talk to the label and make sure it’s cool,” White says.

The response is usually the same, he adds.

“They’ll [tell me] … ’If you’re crazy enough to put it out on tape, go ahead,’” White says.

Burger and White aren’t the only ones that understand the financial advantages of cassettes. Dal Basi, who owns the local record store Phono Select, says that over the last few years bands—some local, some out-of-towners—have come by to drop off their tapes. And shoppers have come in to buy them.

“It’s a slow-building underground trend in the DIY community,” Basi says. “It’s probably the most affordable physical format you can get. Let’s face it, CDs are nice, but they’re kind of sterile.”

Still, he adds, he didn’t expect younger generations to take up the format.

“I’m surprised they would gravitate to something so old. I figured it would seem prehistoric to them,” says Basi, adding that his teenage son has embraced the medium. “Even my kid, who doesn’t even buy records, collects tapes. He just thinks they’re really cool.”

The resurgence is at least partially a result of the vinyl revival. Not only is it cheaper to make tapes, but thanks to the scarcity of pressing plants, the wait time to manufacture vinyl records can stretch out to five or six months.

In contrast, the typical turnaround time for a cassette release is less than a week.

And, as more bands release new music on tapes, the demand for used cassettes has also gone up. In recent years Basi says he’s watched the resell value for used cassettes double, even triple, depending on the title.

“No one is coming in and asking for Billy Joel on tape. But punk and alternative [cassettes are] the biggest driver,” he says. “It’s all outsider music—whether it’s reggae, metal, arty rock—it all falls into the outsider stuff. I like to call it rebel music.”

But with easy, cheap or free access to streaming music via the likes of Spotify and YouTube, some wonder if the cassette revival is just a passing fad.

Local garage-punk musician Charles Albright doesn’t think so. Albright, who runs a small, cassette-only label called Charles Albright Records, says he sees the resurgence as a direct response to the effect all that streaming convenience has had on music, particularly among die-hard music fans.

“The cassette, like other old timey stuff, it’s a pushback against digital availability. There’s something lost in the digital-only existence of music,” Albright says. “As people become less interested in music, it’s directly correlated with the accessibility of music.”

Albright has a point: If you no longer have to dig through record stores or attend weird or obscure basement shows to stay up on what’s new, fresh or cutting edge, then what else is there to define your musical obsessions? The cassette revival may eventually unspool—again—for mainstream listeners, but the consumers fueling both the tape and vinyl revivals are primarily fanatics, not casual listeners.

As such, perhaps—at least to an extent—hardcore musical fans and outsiders are no longer defined so much by the style of music that people listen to, but how they listen to it, and cassettes, like vinyl, have become a way for people to illustrate that music is their life, not just background noise.