Last summer, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 became a surprise hit for the flagging music industry, and went on to sell more than a million copies. At least 2,000 of those were sold via the same format that Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord used to listen to his favorite AM radio hits in the Marvel smash: cassette tape.
Awesome‘s analog success signaled a high-water mark for the return of the somewhat maligned tape, which beat out the eight-track to become the dominant format of the ’80s, only to be vanquished by the compact disc by the end of the decade. Lately, though, tapes have seen a resurgence—both in collectors’ markets and in new releases by sources ranging from cool-kid indie labels to eccentric movie stars (see: Jeff Bridges’ cassette version of his Sleeping Tapes, heavily promoted during this year’s Super Bowl).
While some of these newer labels focus on a particular niche (One Way Static, for example, deals mostly in horror scores from cult films like Candyman and Nekromantik), the relative ease of putting out tapes has made for a singularly accessible—and eclectic—revival. “You can take chances with new music on cassette,” says Sean Bohrman, cofounder of L.A.’s acclaimed Burger Records, a mostly cassette outfit that has moved more than 350,000 tapes since its inception in 2007. “Instead of paying 15 or 20 bucks for an LP, you can spend five bucks and take a chance and discover new music.”
In addition to affordability—price points rarely exceed $10—the draw of cassettes comes from their practicality and portability. (As much as it’s enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade, vinyl doesn’t exactly fit in your back pocket.) That’s partly why Marc Weinstein, the co-owner of Amoeba, one of the largest independent record chains in the country, thinks his stores do so well with them. “We’ve always sold hundreds of [used] cassettes per day,” he tells EW. “They never went away for us. For many years, the cassette market was all about people who had vintage cars and wanted cassettes for their tape decks. The resurgence is similar to the romance over LPs, but it’s even more folksy.”
Weinstein also cites a growing rejection of current digital culture: “I think there’s a fascination for the mechanical age,” he says. “A lot of young people didn’t experience it at all, and they’re longing for that…. It gives you a unique connection to the artist. It’s a very personal thing, fundamentally different from what you can do online.” Plus, he says, “Tapes have a slightly warmer, bassier kind of sound. It’s got its own sound quality for sure.”
As democratic as most prices are, there is a buyer’s market and burgeoning eBay trade for certain rare tapes. Says Crescenzo Capece, a veteran New York City seller, “Promotional editions for cult artists like Tupac can go high—I once got $1,200, $1,400 for one with extra tracks. And bands like Depeche Mode, not surprisingly, can be very popular.” Also typically much cheaper than records: “The vinyl might be $75, yet the same [music] can be found on cassette for 99 cents.”
Tapes are still a relatively tiny sliver of the music-industry pie, of course. But when the crowds line up for the eighth annual Record Store Day on Saturday, April 18, in which thousands of independent retail outlets across the country participate, many fans will be looking for the Metallica demo No Life ‘Til Leather. It’s one of the iconic rockers’ most coveted collectors’ items—and it will be available exclusively on limited-edition cassette.
That pleases Foo Fighters founder and Record Store Day ambassador Dave Grohl, whose connection to both Metallica and cassette culture runs deep. “It’s funny that Metallica is releasing their first demo on a cassette, because I mail-ordered my first Metallica album on cassette in 1983,” he tells EW. “I had no idea who they were, but their name was cool and the description was ‘thrash metal.’ I didn’t even know what that was. And so I sent my $7.50 to this place and two weeks later I get the Metallica cassette of Kill ‘Em All, and I put it in my boombox, and it blew my f—ing mind.”
Grohl also appreciates the egalitarian nature of cassettes, which gave rise to mixtape culture. “The funny thing about cassettes is that they were such a threat to the music industry back then. When cassettes became popular there were these bumper stickers everywhere that said ‘Home taping is killing the record industry,'” he says. “When digital downloading became the industry’s next biggest threat, it just totally echoed what happened when cassettes became popular. Like, ‘Wait a minute, the listener is in control? No!’ And to me, I was like, ‘F— yeah, man!’ When I was a punk-rock kid growing up outside of Washington, D.C., we were swapping cassettes of band’s demos. Whenever someone got the Fugazi demos, we’d all dub it for each other. But then we’d go see Fugazi play, and we’d sing every f—ing word to every one of those songs. We might not have bought the record, but we went to every one of those shows.
“I think that’s what’s happening with the Foo Fighters now,” he continues. “With the Foo Fighters, we’re not selling as many records as we used to, but we’re selling out stadiums, because the people are getting the music somehow and they’re coming to the shows, and they’re singing every word. For me, that live interaction is what made me fall in love with music.”
Additional reporting by Eric Renner Brown.