An Unexpected Reason for the Cassette Revival

By on November 25, 2015

A bunch of us met for breakfast on Sunday ahead of our annual trip to a big record show.  Naturally, the conversation was peppered with plenty of music geekery. When the conversation turned to upcoming releases, I asked if anyone was buying this whole cassette revival nonsense. That’s when one of the guys — an employee of a major label — spoke up.

“It’s crazy, but it’s not going away. And I know why.”

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He had our attention. “I was looking through the list of upcoming premium releases issued by the US side of the label. A bunch of them had catalogue numbers beginning with ‘P.’ I’d never seen that before so I called up my guy in America and asked about them.

“‘Oh, those are cassettes,’ he said.

“‘Cassettes? Why?’”

There was a pause. “‘They’re prison releases.’”

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Prison releases? Yep. There are enough people incarcerated in the U.S. — over 2.2 million as of 2013, the highest prison population in the world — for convicts to form a viable standalone music market.

But why cassettes?  CDs are forbidden because they can be turned into shanks. MP3 players are allowed but without Internet access, they’re kinda useless. How do you load them up with music? Vinyl? Fuhgeddaboutit. The only remaining option is the lowly cassette.

But you can’t use just any cassette. A little investigation uncovers companies like Fortress Audio and Duplication.ca offer blank cassettes made with clear shells (to prevent smuggling) and without any screws (they can be weaponized) just for prison use.

Then we have services like Music 4 Inmates and 8-Track-Shack that specialize in providing music for the incarcerated. Now take a look at this article in Spin a few years ago:

Cassettes may be a relic of the pre-digital era, but there are a few places in this country where those unloved plastic tapes are holding on strong. Although many corrections departments are tiptoeing cautiously into the digital future by introducing MP3 players to their inmate populations (see our feature on the subject), at prisons in New York and Illinois (as well as some facilities in other states), the only way an offender can listen to music is on a cassette ordered from an approved vendor.

Pack Central, operated by owner Bob Paris, is one such company. Paris ran the mail-order department for a record store in Van Nuys, California, in the ’70s, and noticed he was sending a lot of packages into prisons. When he graduated from college in 1980, he opened Pack Central, with an exclusive focus on serving the nation’s incarcerated.

“At the time I started,” Paris explains, “to fill up empty space in their classified section, Rolling Stone would run a list of names and addresses of people in prison seeking pen pals. I’d cut out those addresses, use them as a shipping label and send them a catalog. That got my catalog into facilities all over the country.”

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So the reason cassettes remain a viable music storage format are its uses by convicted felons?

Yes, but that’s not the only explanation. Here are a few more:

Luddite Hipsters: “I love music SO MUCH that I’m showing it by using a super-inconvenient back-to-basics format. Cassettes are worse than even vinyl, so it must mean my devotion to music is that much greater.” Uh-huh. These romantacizers of the old-school mixtape obviously weren’t around when it was our only option for taking our music on the road. Recording a car tape in real time? Deliver me from that.

Collectibles: Why else would Blink-182 announce the reissue of four of their biggest albums on cassette? It’s not like everyone still has cassette machines lying around the house. There isn’t a single automobile manufacturer that still offers an in-dash cassette player–the last one was the 2010 Lexus SC430–so you’ll have to go back to a model made before then to find one. Still, if you enjoy dust-gathering tchotchkes…

Emerging Nations: I’ll give you this one. Cassettes do have their rugged attributes, making them well suited for hot and dusty places like India, Africa and Indonesia. In places like that, cassettes are definitely A Thing.

Japan: Er, what? Yes, the Japanese continue to hang on to cassettes. Walk into any small store and you’ll find plenty of blank packages for sale. Although the country has a reputation of being gadget-crazy, the truth is that large swaths of Japanese society are technologically conservative. Hey, fax machines are still a big deal in Japan.  And let’s not forget that Sony just killed production of Betamax tapes earlier this year, even though they hadn’t made a Beta player since 2002.

I find cassettes to be hateful, backward things whose time has come and gone. But it looks like the cassette still hasn’t received that memo.

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  • frank

    great story! also, I love these hand-drawn tape covers. how can I get a copy of that henry’s dress & softies @ bottom of the hill 11/19/95 tape?!

  • tom dissonance

    tapes are brilliant. and yes, i was around for when the old-skool mixtape was the only method of taking music on the road. they’re still brilliant.

  • Luka Koprivica

    They are so rare they have simply became perk and a bait for gadget lovers! Otherwise, a complete nonsense…

  • Vincenzo Ferretti

    Cassettes are God!