On a mid-January morning in Springfield, Mo., a tractor-trailer backs up to the National Audio Company’s loading dock and unloads more than 600,000 empty compact cassette shells from factories in China and Saudi Arabia. The shipment is added to a warehouse inventory of another 10 million or so of the multi-colored, plastic cartridges awaiting tape inside the country’s largest cassette manufacturer. About 50 workers, including recording engineers and graphic artists, assemble up to 100,000 preordered tapes a day to satisfy demand for a product that might otherwise seem obsolete. “Most people would probably think there aren’t 100,000 cassettes left in the world,” National Audio’s owner Steve Stepp tells me. “I’ve got an order of 87,000 going out today.”
Housed in a six-story brick structure that once produced another relic — the agricultural horse collar — National Audio has managed to stay solvent selling blank and spoken-word tapes. During the Nineties, as the industry moved to compact disc, the company bought up much of the idle cassette-making machinery around the country for pennies on the dollar. Then they waited for a cassette revival that almost no one else saw coming.
“There are two reasons why we stuck in there,” says Stepp, casually dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt. “One is stubbornness and one is stupidity. I’m a very stubborn person and I’m a very optimistic person. The stupidity part is we didn’t know the cassette was dead. We were told it was dead and we never believed it. We just hung in there long enough. And we know that the market is what we thought it would be. It’s come back.”
Last year, National Audio sold about $5 millions worth of cassettes, a 31 percent increase in sales from the previous year. Seventy percent of the firm’s business comes from independent labels and largely unknown bands, but a number of majors are following the trend. Sony, Capitol, Disney, and Universal Music Group all have made orders on behalf of some of their larger clients; National Audio even manufactured a cassette for Justin Bieber last year.
The plant also makes tapes for Nirvana, Keith Richards, Judas Priest, Ice Cube and Weezer, among others. It made 25,000 cassettes for the recent release of a seven-song demo Metallica recorded in 1982, “No Life ‘Til Leather.” The company’s in-house graphics department replicated drummer Lars Ulrich’s original handwriting and artwork for the cassette that is now fetching up to $50 on eBay. “We love the majors, and that’s where you do your big volume, but we would not be here doing what we’re doing if not for the indie band,” Stepp says. “Indie bands are responsible for this return.”
Whether the order comes from a garage band or Bieber, National Audio rarely charges more than $2 a tape, including engineering, labeling, J-card artwork, wrapping, packing and shipping. But the cassette’s revival is more about the meaning of materiality in the age of ephemera. It is tangible and colorful and mechanical; its moving inner workings have a quasi-steam-punk feel; it conveys arty, retro-cool in ways that a stream of 0s and 1s cannot.
On the factory floor, master tapes move from one of six sound studios for duplication by in-house engineers and then to vintage tape slaves and loaders. It takes less than 10 seconds for 90 minutes of tape to be threaded into a plastic cartridge. Releases from Doom Ghost, Rozwell Kid, Weekend and Hellkite spit out at the end of the assembly line. “They’re all hoping to be famous one day,” Stepp says. “Dreams aren’t made until you make that first tape.”
The epicenter of modern cassette music culture is in a strip mall on South State College Boulevard in Fullerton, California. Between a tattoo parlor and a massage joint, Burger Records runs its label in a cluttered, curtained-off back room where one of the owners sleeps on the couch at night. Its founders, Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, were pals at Anaheim high school and members of a local power-pop band Three Makeout Party, when they decided to start the label in 2007. A Burger cassette has since become a right of passage for California’s glut of emerging lo-fi talent. “When we started we didn’t know there was going to be a cassette revival,” Bohrman says. “We just wanted to put these awesome albums on cassettes because nobody else was.”
Bohrman quit his day job as art director at a boating magazine and cashed in his 401K to start the record store. “We got made fun of when we started releasing cassettes, because it was like, ‘Why?'” Bohrman says. “We just kept doing it because we were poor and that’s all we could afford.”
Burger’s catalog now has over 1,000 releases, including albums from Brian Jonestown Massacre and Devon Williams. The label hosts an annual Burgerama festival in nearby Santa Ana, and there have been Burger-themed shows in San Francisco, Paris, Stockholm, Milan, Melbourne and Tel Aviv. “It’s big to be on the Burger scene,” says Justin Eckley, who has released two albums on the label. “We just went up to Seattle and back. Just saying we’re a Burger band and we put out a new cassette with them got us booked. I don’t think the tour would have been as good had we not had the Burger label behind us.”
Burger sells cassettes for no more than $5 each. While National Audio has found a way to turn a profit, purveyors on the artistic grassroots side of the cassette revival are still trying to figure out how to earn a living on mid-20th-century technology. “How do you put a price on a counterculture or a teen scene?” Rickard asks. “We’ve invested a lot and been selfless in that sense. We don’t know how much longer we can continue that path without bankrupting ourselves finically, spiritually. It’s the Wild West. Anything goes. It’s got us this far. It’s fun, but people are snakes. There are agendas everywhere.”
Still, there are moments to celebrate, like when Green Day chose Burger to rerelease their 1994 smash hit Dookie. “I usually don’t get nostalgic about things, but Dookie, wow, fuckin’ Dookie,” Bohrman says. “My dad wouldn’t let me listen to the record because they cussed on it. Now I’m designing the artwork, and he’s proud. That’s a record we grew up with and now it’s a part of the Burger catalog.”
Of course, the culture of the cassette, like sentimental love for Dookie, is partly nostalgic, but it’s also about a medium that holds up. “We’re old school,” Rickard says. “We’re into analog. We like touching things. We like feeling. We’re sensitive. And take things to heart. It’s the binary code. So much is lost in translation, frequencies and things, it’s hard to describe in nature what it is. The computer can only pick up ones and zeros. Things get lost.”