As I was driving to my teaching responsibilities yesterday afternoon, I heard a piece reported by Molly Wood on an audio format that you might have thought had gone the way of the 8-track cartridge…analog cassettes. I’d heard that the world had not yet rid itself of this aging format some many months ago and wrote an article of my own on this curiosity. But here was another report on the NPR show Marketplace about a company in Springfield, Missouri called the National Audio Company. These guys made more than 10 million audio cassette tapes in 2014, their biggest year ever!
They sell custom length cassettes to small indie labels, artists, and others in an era when the vast majority of young people are listening to MP3 files on their portable players. How in the world could a format that was current when I was in high school still have any market share? The answer came from National Audio President President Steve Stepp. According to Steve:
“The end users are the under 35 age group. These are people who grew up with the MP3 and earbuds and that’s what they thought music sounded like. And then at some point in time, they listened to grandpa’s open reel tapes or cassettes, or maybe his LPs, and they heard real analog music. And they thought ‘Wow! That’s what music sounds like.’…The retro revolution is part of it, but the second thing is a realization that we really got away from something good when we gave up analog audio. And people now who have heard the two types prefer it.”
I almost had to pull off of the freeway to compose myself after hearing this. It’s more of the same outmoded thinking that claims everything and anything analog is somehow better than today’s digital music systems and files. In all honestly, I would rather submit myself to a 320 kbps MP3 file than suffer through the best cassette playback in the world. Steve may be riding a wave involving audio cassettes but he must not be doing a whole lot of listening these days.
Compact audio cassettes have very poor fidelity due to their very narrow tracks (4 within 1/8 of an inch), slow tape speed (1 7/8 ips), and clumsy transports. With the help of Nakamichi and Dolby, the format was improved but never to the point it competed sonically with vinyl LPs or analog reel to reel machines. I suspect that National Audio Company’s success with cassettes is due to nostalgia, convenience, and low cost.
According to the report, NAC is sales are growing at over 20% per year and 10 million cassettes is a very large number.
I can’t help but think that the under 35 age group would enthusiastically embrace real high-resolution music, if they ever got the chance to hear it. As you know, I make available a dozen of my high-resolution tracks via my FTP site. Following my interview on Leo Laporte’s “Triangulation” show, I’ve received hundreds of requests for those tracks. The feedback has been very encouraging…one listen and you know.