On September 27, the second annual International Cassette Store Day could be coming to a store near you. The roster of releases includes tapes from J Dilla, White Lung, Cloud Nothings and Karen O. But cassettes have also regained a small foothold as a cheap, physical release option for do-it-yourselfers, as seen in Wondering Sound contributor Maria Sherman’s recent list of The 20 Best Tapes of 2014 So Far.
So, when it comes to tapes, how do you do it yourself?
Making a cassette involves a few pretty simple steps. First, you need the tapes. Second, you need to get the music on all those tapes. And finally, you’re probably going to want some artwork to slip into the cassette case. Luckily, there are still a small number of companies to help do some or all of this for you, and the price isn’t exorbitant.
Talk to people who run tape labels, and they’ll tell you there are basically two different schools. Some tape labels “pro-dub” their tapes, sending off their music and art to a manufacturer who then professionally duplicates the music, puts labels on the tapes and prepares and stuffs the J-cards with the art on them. Other tape labels “home dub” their tapes, meaning they buy the blank tapes and then copy the music and art themselves using dual cassette decks or high-speed duplicators.
National Audio Company is currently the United States’ biggest producer of cassettes, offering both pro-dubbing and home-dubbing options. M2 Communications will also duplicate tapes or sell blank ones, though its minimum pro-dubbing order of 250 tapes may be more than some tape labels will sell. For home-dubbing, other options include National Recording Supplies and Delta Media.
Springfield, Missouri-based National Audio opened its doors in 1969, and while former rivals such as Phillips have given up on the cassette market, this one has been expanding its capacity. What kept National Audio in the tape business was ongoing demand for spoken-word materials, including for educational services and the blind, but company president Steve Stepp says the music industry has come back in the past four or five years.
“Now it has actually returned to the point that the majority of what do is new music releases again,” Stepp tells me over the phone. Overall, including non-music, he says National Audio produces about 500,000 cassettes a week.
Cassette Store Day certainly isn’t hurting National Audio’s business. Last year, the event brought with it cassette releases of more than 50 albums, including Deerhunter‘s Monomania and Haim‘s Forever EP. This year, the list of new tapes numbers more than 300, a six-fold increase. Of those 300, Stepp says his business, which he co-founded with his father, was producing more than 200.
National Audio’s site offers detailed ordered instructions and a form to get a price quote. Music package specials range from $182 for 100 basic pro-dubbed tapes of up to 60 minutes, ready to go with J-cards and all, to $1,450 for 1,000 higher-end “Chrome Plus” tapes with the same fixings.
Turnaround time is usually about three weeks from start to finish. Stepp offers that the turnaround time has stretched to closer to four weeks ahead of Cassette Store Day. Though those familiar with the vinyl-production delays associated with Record Store Day may sense a possible reason for concern if tape’s big day keeps getting bigger, Stepp says National Audio has as much equipment in reserve as it has on the floor.
Pasadena, California-based M2, founded in 1980, is where this year’s Cassette Store Day ambassadors, the people at Burger Records, get all their tapes done. Pro-dubbing prices listed on their site range from $160 for a 250-copy run of 15-minute tapes to $17,250 for 25,000-copy order of 90-minute tapes. A standard J-card costs 18 cents apiece.
M2′s cassette orders dropped to almost nothing starting around 2007 until Burger came calling several years ago. “And it has just grown from there,” president Michael McKinney says in an email. “We do nowhere near the 300,000 cassettes we used to a month but numbers are continuing to grow.” He notes that by the time tapes started to drop in popularity, they could sound as clean as a CD. And he says to expect five to 10 days production time.
Kenneth Cheung, CEO of Delta Media, says in an email that the company is producing 100,000 pieces monthly, with consistent growth of about 25% since 2012. That’s a small portion of what the company produced a decade ago, so there’s still plenty of room to meet any further rebound in demand. Delta Media can make tapes at essentially any length, and it offers various colors, of which scrap metal is the most popular. On business days, turnaround time is generally within 24 hours.
Tom Pavlich, who makes tapes for the Mirror Universe Tapes label, is a home-dubber. “I started home dubbing again because I grew up making mixes, recording albums to tape for the car, and like to see the product through from beginning to end,” he says in an email. “I can make a batch of tapes, compensate the artist who did the visual art and profit share with the band for less than what it would cost to have the tapes professionally produced.”
Pavlich acknowledges there was a “pretty big learning curve” when he started. Part of that had to do with learning to produce the J-cards using Photoshop and InDesign. He also had to decide how he wanted the art on the tape itself to look. He now makes a custom rubber stamp for each release and hand-stamps the tapes individually.
The growing interest manufacturers cite in tapes has yet to show up in the data kept by Nielsen SoundScan. Cassette album sales, after bottoming out at 21,000 in 2010, perked up to 31K in 2011 and 55K in 2012, only to slip since: to 11K last year, increasing to 29K this year through August. Nielsen Entertainment analyst David Bakula said that the 2012 boost came from a mass merchant such as Kmart, which “probably had a fire sale.” In fact, the bulk of that year’s sales took place over Black Friday weekend, and the top-selling title was Greatest Hits of Baroque, followed by other releases on a label called Platinum Disc.
SoundScan counts cassette albums sales of only 1,000 units for the week of last year’s Cassette Store Day. On Record Store Day this year, though, with cassette exclusives from the likes of Skrillex and Green Day, cassettes moved 3,000 units — still miniscule in the big picture, yes, but up 272 percent over the prior week and 177 percent over the same week in 2013.
The overall boost that Record Store Day gives to album sales owes to artist and label support, Bakula observes. “So when Record Store Day comes around and all the sudden the Foo Fighters are doing an exclusive package, that brings a lot of attention and a lot of fans out to Record Store Day,” he explains over the phone. “If you had somebody — the right artist, the right genre — that said, ‘We’re going to put out an exclusive cassette to coincide with Cassette Day,’ I guarantee you Cassette Day would be a big hit.”
It might be too late for a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack cassette this year. But who knows: With a little luck and ingenuity, next year the right tape could be one you make yourself.