Miss the Hiss? Fanatics Flip for Tunes on Cassette Tapes

Lauren Rudser

Album Connoisseurs Eschew the Shuffle, Embrace Flaws; That 'Sweet Plasticy Smell'

Billy Sprague
Lauren Rudser/The Wall Street Journal
Billy Sprague owns the cassette-only label Sanity Muffin in Oakland

Luke Thordarson is an audiophile with a houseful of fancy amplifiers and speakers, but he has been hunting for one special piece of technology to complete his setup.

He found it on a blue tarp at the flea market here one Sunday recently. "How much are you asking for this?" Mr. Thordarson asked the vendor, trying to hide his excitement.

There it was, nestled between a car rim and some used blenders: a Technics RS-616 cassette deck.

Mr. Thordarson haggled the price down to $20 from $30. Making his day more glorious, he also found a vendor with blank cassettes still in their wrappers.

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"It's treasure-collecting in its oldest form," says Mr. Thordarson, who will add the tapes to his collection of 600 cassettes.

Mr. Thordarson, a professional DJ, is part of a small group of cassette-tape connoisseurs, a fringe of audiophiles who find the tape's flat tones and fuzzy hiss to be a comforting throwback.

Most music lovers have abandoned cassettes. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is removing the term "cassette player" from its Concise dictionary. Sony says it stopped shipments of its Walkman cassette player in Japan earlier this year.

But cassette devotees say that tapes are underappreciated. They see cassettes following in the shadows of their analog brethren, vinyl records, which are currently enjoying a renaissance.

The Compact Cassette was invented by Philips, the Netherlands electronics giant, in 1963, and took off in the 1970s, especially after Sony introduced its legendary Walkman in 1979. U.S. music-cassette shipments peaked in 1988 at 450 million tapes, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. The cassette's decline began as compact discs took over.

Most music lovers don't miss the hiss, the background noise caused when the tape passes over the playback head. "Listening to a cassette for quality is like driving a Smart Car in the Indy 500," says Bob Lefsetz, author of a music newsletter and blog, who says the cassette is a poor music medium.

The hiss is part of the magic for cassette lovers. "Tape hiss has the same amount of charm as a little crackle when listening to a record has," says Mr. Thordarson. "It makes it seem more real."

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Then there's the smell. "I want them fresh, sealed in the package," says AndréSirois, 31, who hunts for unopened tapes to add to his collection. "I know one day I'll rip them open and smell that sweet plasticy smell, and I'm going to enjoy how I used to enjoy music, as an old dude."

Mr. Sirois's prized tape is a sealed copy of Biz Markie's "I need a Haircut," for which he paid $30. Most copies of the album were destroyed after a landmark copyright lawsuit over a sampled bit from Gilbert O'Sullivan's song "Alone Again, (Naturally)." Mr. Sirois, of Eugene, Ore., plans to install a cassette-and-CD combination player in his 1991 Toyota minivan to indulge his passion.

"My wife totally hates it," he says. "She thinks it's stupid."

It's hard to say exactly how many people disagree. U.S. music-cassette sales are up about 50% to 23,000 albums so far this year, compared with the same period last year, according Nielsen SoundScan. But that statistic doesn't include all private tape production or sales of blank and used tapes.

Steve Stepp, president of National Audio Co., the largest U.S. cassette-tape manufacturer, says he has seen a surge in cassette-tape sales. He says he has doubled his staff to about 60 from 30 in 2009 to increase production at his Springfield, Mo., factory.

"Four years ago, most people thought the audiocassette was finished," he says. "It's our well kept secret that it never was."

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One of Mr. Stepp's customers is Billy Sprague, owner of Sanity Muffin, a cassette-only music label in Oakland, Calif. When Mr. Sprague noticed his musician friends had backlogs of recordings but couldn't afford CD or vinyl distribution, he cooked up the label. Cassettes average $2.50 per tape to produce, he says, and sell for $5 to $7.

The cassette tape represents a rejection of the digital age of instant gratification and attention-deficit disorder, he says. "It's sort of like trying to combat ADD where people with a CD can kind of skip all over the place," he says. "But with a tape, you kind of have to take it from start to finish on both sides." A cassette player has nothing comparable to the shuffle setting on an iPod, either.

Kyle Field, front man of folk-rock band Little Wings, recently released two albums on cassette. One, titled "Made It Rain," he recorded in a yurt near Big Sur. "It kind of seemed like a new thing," Mr. Field says. "It seemed like someone had taken a tape to a new place."

Some are taking tapes to even newer places. They are using them to make cassette chairs, for example, and to crochet purses.

Ian Nigh, 20, whose tape collection numbers around 1,000, is collecting classic-rock cassettes that he plans to zip-tie together to form the seat and back of a chair that has a sonic theme. "It's an actual piece of furniture — not just a novelty sculpture," says Mr. Nigh, who runs Hobbit Hole Creative, which sells his crafts online from his home in Greenville, S.C.

Monica Topping, 31-year-old owner of Rock Chick Designs in Eureka, Calif., recently crocheted a purse out of tape, which she says is hard to work with because it sticks to her needles and it breaks. Tangled, broken, screwed up tape was another charm of cassette players.

"Even though most people don't have a player on which to listen to that mix-tape their boyfriend made for them, or the Green Day tape that got them through the 10th grade, they can still have a bit of comfort with them," she says. "It's like an audio baby blanket."


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