Dust off your boombox, cassette tapes have made a comeback

How grunge rock saved the humble casette tape from extinction

19 May 2019 - 00:06 By
Cassettes allowed us to buck the system and make bootlegs off the radio.
Cassettes allowed us to buck the system and make bootlegs off the radio.
Image: 123RF/Brat82

What do you reckon the National Audio Company knows that you don't? For who in this golden age, where memory is burned for eternity on solid state drives, would voluntarily throw away money on a clunky, fragile piece of tech that is so backward it makes dial phones look modern?

Tens of thousands of people who may not be audiophiles and not hipsters either, that's who.

PODCAST: Time Travel: Who's dumb enough to make a travel podcast on cassette tape?

Over in faraway Springfield Missouri (pop. 167,376), the National Audio Company (NAC) churns out 10 million cassette tapes every year.

Consider that number for a moment: 10 million. That's roughly 3,421,328km of tape to squeal, hiss, stretch break and - finally - be gooied out of car windows in that sad farewell made by so many GenXers on long road trips.

If you're a cassette hater, then blame '90s grunge band Pearl Jam for kicking off what has become a weird and possibly unjustified renaissance.

A long time ago, in 2009, the band came knocking on the company's doors. They wanted to mark their 20th birthday with the box set to beat all others, with releases on vinyl, CD (remember those?) and cassette tapes, and NAC, or so the story goes, was the only place that could possibly pull the tape side of things together.

NAC made 15,000 tapes which flew out the door faster than they could make them, according to music blog discogs.com.

Smashing Pumpkins, jealous as always, called a week later, asking for tapes of their own.

Thus did grunge rock, aided by its fanatical codgers and hipster legions, save the humble tape and its plastic shell from being taken out behind the barn and given the coup de grace that it so richly deserves.

The cassette tape, if you think about it, is lousy tech. Battered by repeated playing - not to mention the violence imparted by rewind and forwarding - stretched the tapes to, literally, breaking point.

I spent hours and hours unspooling and respooling tapes with a pencil in the gears. Days were lost splicing broken tape together with sticky tape - truly a dark art if you wanted to avoid gumming up your tape deck. Life slid by while I made bootleg mix tapes for girls, sticking to the formula so beautifully detailed (much, much later) by Nick Hornby in High Fidelity: you can't have more than one song per band on each side.

Yet, in the year 2019, NAC's business continues to boom. It has new tape machines. It has thousands of kilometres of raw stock. It has sexy shells onto which it loads about 13,410km of tape every day.

Cassettes have many pleasures. There's the desire sparked by the rattle-in-your-hands feel of a newly opened shell, or the whirr of a tape rewinding at speed.

But if you want the real reason cassettes won't die, it's because they kicked the music establishment in the nuts. Cheap cassette tapes let indie bands make demos to send to radio stations and get heard. They allowed us to buck the system and make bootlegs off the radio and make the best love letters ever. Cassette tapes are a kind of democracy, and this week it's good to remember that.

• Listen to Paul Ash's podcast "Time Travel with cassette tapes" here

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