Music to our ears.

By Perri Ormont Blumberg
November 14, 2018
Credit: filonmar/Getty Images

In a world where the phrase "MP3 player" is all but obsolete, you may be surprised to learn that an even older technological innovation is stepping back into the limelight: Audio cassette tapes.

Interestingly, Pearl Jam may be partly responsible for this so-called cassette renaissance. As Popular Mechanics reported, in 2008 or 2009, Pearl Jam reached out to the Missouri-based National Audio Company regarding 20th anniversary cassettes for the album Ten as part of a collector's set. "They were going to do 15 or 20 thousand sets and see how it would go over with their fans," Steve Stepp, president of the company, told Popular Mechanics. "They came and contracted with us, and we made the tapes and shipped them to their warehouse where they were all going to be assembled." The entire inventory of cassettes for the anniversary set (which also included a CD, vinyl record, and scrapbook) sold out in presale. Orders for other projects kept trickling in, and the rest, is nostalgia-fueled history.

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Fast forward to roughly a decade later, and cassette sales are booming. In fact, in 2017 cassette sales were up by 136%, according to the BuzzAngle Music 2017 U.S. Report, (BuzzAngle is a music consumption analytics company). Though the volume of CDs and vinyl records that are sold is much bigger, it's also worth noting that CD sales last year were down 9.4%, and vinyl sales only ticked up a modest 20%.

What accounts for the obsession with cassette tapes? For one thing, the sound quality tugs at our heartstrings in a way streaming music simply can't. "Your ears are analog. The natural world is analog," Stepp said in the same Popular Mechanics piece. "The reason people like cassette tapes and vinyl is that they reproduce actual, analog sound, with all the harmonics and frequencies your ears are built to listen to." For another? Hitting a playlist's "share" link isn't exactly as special as scrawling a cassette tracklist and passing along your mixtape creation to your lab partner in third period science, or, you know, a few decades later, your cubicle mate.