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Cassette tapes make unexpected comeback in era of music streaming


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: In an era of music streaming and digital downloads, an old format is making a comeback.

Stephanie Sy has more on how modern music audiences are rewinding and hitting play on a cassette tape revival.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Stephanie Sy: Electronic music artist Maral has always had a passion for cassettes. Growing up in Northern Virginia, her parents' tape collection was a way to connect with her Iranian heritage.

Maral, Artist: I would go through their old tape collection of old Iranian music, from classical to pop. And that's kind of when I started discovering Iranian music on my own and deciding what types of Iranian music I liked the most.

Stephanie Sy: Today, as an independent artist in Los Angeles, she draws inspiration for her current projects from that same music and even the tapes themselves.

Maral: The older tapes would have a lot of warping to them and, like, the sounds would get pitched down or they would warble. And I was really intrigued by that at a very young age.

So, using that experience, I ended up kind of incorporating that same feeling of hearing these, like, warped tapes when I was younger in my own music by warping the samples later on.

Stephanie Sy: Maral's first project in 2019 was released solely on cassette, and the 200 copies sold out instantly.

While her music may be experimental, cassettes couldn't be more old-school. They became popular in the '70s and '80s, an alternative to vinyl. Compact discs had overtaken both formats by the early 1990s. But the emergence of digitized music and streaming services has eclipsed them all.

Yet cassette tapes are having a moment. According to Luminate, an entertainment industry data collector, U.S. tape sales increased by more than 440 percent between 2015 and 2022. In the past few years, mainstream artists like Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Taylor Swift have all capitalized on the fad.

It's a resurgence similar to that of vinyl records, albeit on a much smaller scale. There's only a handful of cassette manufacturers left in the U.S. One of them is Nick Keshishian, who still has the original equipment he used when cassette tapes were in their heyday.

Nick Keshishian, Cassette Manufacturer: I retired in 2018, and, a month later, I keep getting phone calls from everybody that they want cassettes. And I know there's nobody around here that makes cassettes. And I kept all my equipment. I said, you know what? Let me just do that.

Stephanie Sy: He manufactures as many as 15,000 cassettes a month, a far cry from the nearly 60,000 his business produced weekly during peak popularity.

So, worth coming out of retirement for?

Nick Keshishian: Oh, definitely. Definitely. I'm not a guy that can sit home and watch TV 24/7.

Stephanie Sy: Plus, he prefers the sound of music on cassette.

Nick Keshishian: I love more slow, soft music, romantic music, those kinds of things. And my favorite artist is Lionel Richie. I have all my recordings on cassettes. I -- in my car, I have the cassette player. In my house, I have 10 cassette players.

Stephanie Sy: But the cassette has never been the best medium to preserve sound. C.D.s and vinyl both offer a clearer and more consistent listening experience.

Tapes have shorter life spans, and things like heat and recorder malfunctions can cause parts of the cassettes to degrade faster than other mediums. But, for some, that's the magic.

Marc Masters, Writer: For a lot of people who have collected them for years, some of the anomalies and imperfections are part of the charm of listening to tapes.

Stephanie Sy: Writer Marc Masters is working on a book about the history of cassettes and has a large collection himself.

Marc Masters: People want old stuff on cassettes as much as they want new stuff. They really helped birth total genres. I mean, hip-hop probably wouldn't exist the way we know it if it weren't for cassette tapes.

It started as a deejay medium, and the deejays would deejay live parties and people wanted to hear these parties, so people would bring cassette players and tape them. It facilitated people being able to make and distribute their own music in ways that had never really happened before.

Stephanie Sy: At under $10, they were also more accessible than vinyl records.

Marc Masters: The whole point of making tapes was to have a cheaper format that more people could use and more people could share.

Stephanie Sy: Another thing that made cassette tapes so popular back in the day was the debut of the Sony Walkman in 1979. It made the music format portable, allowing people to create a soundtrack for their everyday lives.

Marc Masters: I pretty much took my Walkman everywhere. I remember even turning it up loud enough that I could mow the lawn and still hear tapes through my headphones.

Stephanie Sy: Going beyond our galaxy, or at least Marvel's galaxy, there is something grounding about tunes played on an old Walkman.

The cassette released in conjunction with the "Guardians of the Galaxy"'s second film was the highest selling cassette last year; 17,000 were sold.

Is it just a novelty, or are they making a statement?

Marc Masters: I imagine people who buy that might not even actually listen to the tapes. It's a neat thing to have.

But, at the same time, if there's people who like tapes who are buying tapes from these artists, that's a great thing.

Stephanie Sy: For indie artists like Maral, tapes are more than a throwback. They're blowback to a streaming industry that has left them high and dry.

Maral: If you're making experimental or underground music, you cannot survive in this ecosystem. So it's about all of us thinking about how we can support artists more.

Stephanie Sy: Maral hopes her projects will live on, on tape.

Maral: Hearing how it disintegrates through time.

Stephanie Sy: And perhaps reaches through time, the way it did for her.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

Amna Nawaz: How cool is that?

You remember the first tape you bought?

Geoff Bennett: Not anymore, no.


Geoff Bennett: How about you?

Amna Nawaz: Everyone is going to be thinking about it now.

Geoff Bennett: Right, exactly.

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