I Love Cassettes, and That’s Why I Don’t Love Cassette Store Day
Despite media chatter about a recent “cassette resurgence,” most people still haven't re-embraced the tape. Anyone under 30 probably associates them with their parents' music collections, and only a slim margin of record nerds knows about their prevalence among obscure noise and punk bands. But soon, you'll be able to buy cassettes from big-name bands like The Flaming Lips and Animal Collective.
That's because tomorrow is Cassette Store Day, an international event that rides the coattails of the popular Record Store Day. Saturday, more than 50 cassettes will be released in honor of the day, many of them from tiny bands with little name recognition, and others from bands that long crossed over into the indie mainstream, like At the Drive In and Deerhunter. But while Cassette Store Day releases could help bring customers into record stores—always a good thing—they also run the risk of hurting the cassette's most faithful champions.
Tapes are cheap to produce and buy. That's why they've always been attractive to smaller bands and labels who can't afford to press vinyl. Meanwhile, Record Store Day, which was dreamed up in order to help bring new business to struggling record stores, has proven even better at cranking out overpriced collector crap—and perhaps even raising the price of vinyl year-round. Cassette Store Day could do the same thing for tapes.
This year's Record Store Day releases included a $35 Phish album and a $50 vinyl reissue of The Flaming Lips' Zaireeka—stuff that's obviously intended to gouge consumers. Record Store Day has become big business, and record stores aren't necessarily its primary beneficiaries. Resellers are. Just take a look at eBay the day after Record Store Day, and you'll see what I mean: RSD releases sold for many times over what they sold for in stores. If folks are willing to throw buckets of money at RSD products—both in stores and online—what's to stop some labels from raising the price on all of its records, all the time? And who's to say Cassette Store Day couldn't follow in its footsteps?
Cassettes never really went away; many hardcore punk and experimental bands rely on the cheap format to get their music into the hands of their fans. My label, Fan Death Records, sold close to 3,000 cassettes between 2010 and 2013. We kept prices low—$5 or $6 per cassette for retail—while still enjoying a nice profit margin. We saw people taking a chance on bands they wouldn’t have heard if we had released them on pricier formats.
Companies like the National Audio Company stayed in the cassette business long after the competition moved on to making CD's, says NAC President Steve Stepp. The company can produce 100 cassette copies of an album for much lower than the cost of pressing vinyl or even full CD-R packages. But even NAC's cost is rising—an increase Stepp attributes to ascendant material costs and new hires needed to handle more orders. When I started Fan Death, a tape order from NAC cost me $130; now it costs about $170.
"I support Record Store Day and Cassette Store Day and respect the fact that they have given a huge breath into what many considered a dead industry, but it is bordering on turning cassettes and vinyl into 'manufactured collectables,'" says Tony Pence, owner of Baltimore record store Celebrated Summer Records.
It already may be happening: Just the other day, I found a Xiu Xiu cassette—a Cassette Store Day exclusive—on eBay with a starting bid of nearly $40, which is $32 dollars more than the suggested retail price. Most buyers may not be willing to pay that much for tapes yet, but they could, if labels and wholesalers decide to start marketing them as specialty items. "If cassettes truly catch on again, you will assuredly see the prices rising, as any chance to make an extra buck is hunted to the ground,” Pence says.
So what’s a fair price for a cassette? Pitchfork writer Jenn Pelly says she wouldn't pay more than $7 for one. Freelance writer Jes Skolnik, who's contributed to punk zine Maximum RocknRoll, says $8 to $10 is a reasonable price for a full-length cassette, but suspects that prices have been going up. I've passed up cassettes from labels like NNA due to record stores pricing them around the $9 dollar mark.
Music journalist Maria Sherman tells me that she likes cassettes because they're "humble." "If you're in a band and want release something physical, this is the easiest way to do it," Sherman says. "I'd go as far as to say that, with the very real exception of online media, tapes are the most democratic physical medium for experiencing music." They are now—but perhaps not for long.