When I arrived on campus my freshman year at Marist College I brought with me a wooden box filled with cassette tapes. I still have that wood box and now use it to store keepsakes. But back then it was filled with as many as 100 cassettes. I was afraid to bring any of my records to school. The idea of anyone on the dorm floor popping into my room when I was at class and messing with my collection was a non-starter. So instead I recorded the essential albums and they lived for four years in that container.
My sister had been an executive at NBC Radio’s national rock network, then called “The Source.” She would give me cassettes of special programing that were returned by stations after the shows had aired. I would tape over the punch outs and record over the radio specials. It was always a tricky endeavor. The tape lengths always varied in size because the shows did as well. Some came populated with ads, some didn’t. So there were shows that were only twenty minutes in length, while others were an hour and twenty minutes. This would always make the actual mix tapes I made impossible to copy.
One in particular was called “The Groove Tape.” My roommate Chuck and our friend Jim and I made this ballad-heavy mix and it remained in great demand throughout our time at Marist – mostly by the guys on our floor. It probably reached the overplay point somewhere it our junior year but we could never copy it exactly because its total run time was like 107 minutes. We really had to handle it with care and insist on the same when sharing it with friends. To this day, we all still talk about the tape and have tried desperately to remember every song that it contained. I know there are at least six or seven we’re still forgetting. Some of the ones I remember are “Wonderful Tonight,” “Racing In The Street,” “Mind Games” and “I Count The Tears.”
This all went down in the early 1980s at the very moment CDs arrived on the scene. There were a select few folks who began to return to college from breaks with CD players and a handful of discs between them. But that was rare. Cassettes were still king and because mine were so unique they tended to remain in high demand. I remember operating a service of sorts, lending copies out like library books. There were even a few radio specials from my sister that I decided to hold on to. “Memory Weekend,” with 1960s songs like “Ferry Across The Mersey” and “Poor Side of Town,” was one that was as enjoyable a listen as anything I had in that box. I wish I still had a copy of it. In fact, I wish I still had copies of a lot of the cassettes that carried me through my college experience. Almost all of them were irreplaceable in one way or another.
I met my wife six years after graduation. By then CDs and vinyl had become my platforms of choice. Even my car stereo played CDs by then, so whatever cassettes I had left were boxed up and stored somewhere at my mom’s.
The first time I took a ride in my wife’s car I was really caught off guard. She had a cassette collection that rivaled the one I’d curated in college. But hers were all pre-recorded and in pristine condition. She had gotten on the cassette wagon in college too, but because she spent a lot of time in her car, that became her primary listening environment.
So I got back into the format. I pulled some of my old gems out and started tossing them into her Honda and just like that some things kicked back into gear like they had never left. There was that bend in the tape halfway through “The Price You Pay” on Bruce Springsteen’s The River. There was that dead air that emerged on Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model that I still can’t explain. These were audio oddities that became as central to a song as a drummer’s snare drum snap or cymbal crash. After a few years in that car, the musical “editions” that I became used to were like learned twitches. When I’d hear any of those songs on anything else I’d brace for the bend or the silence.
The car ultimately was stolen in the parking lot of a hospital in Queens, New York and just like that, the cassette once again fell into a deep slumber for us. We still held onto our collections and every now and then marvel at how they had been such a big part of our youth.
Then about five years ago I was picking up one of my audio components from repair and noticed a mid-1980s Nakamichi RS-202 for sale in the store. It had been entirely refurbished. Most Copper readers would agree that Nakamichi was the preeminent cassette player in the day. They also had mastered a unique carriage system where upon reaching the end of its side, the tape would be thrust outward and spun 180 degrees. Then the entire carriage would pull back and snap into place and play would once again begin. To this day the entire process captivates my attention. That day that deck came home with me and once again, turned my attention to cassettes.
My wife wasn’t as enthused. She wasn’t so bothered by me having bought the deck. She was more concerned about what would follow. Already my CDs and vinyl records had begun to overtake the house. Was I going to start adding cassettes? How much more room was that going to command? Honestly, all of these were fair questions that I hadn’t really thought through.
In the end, I didn’t have to. By the late 1980s CDs had become so prevalent that most retailers were practically giving their vinyl away. This moment wasn’t like that at all. Streaming services might have driven down CD sales. But they seemed to have fueled those for cassettes. This time around, when I jumped back into the market ready to buy a whole bunch of music I found that the cost of cassettes had skyrocketed. Cassettes had become a true nostalgia item and those copies in excellent condition began to command real money.
Let me give you some perspective as to why the prices have risen so dramatically. For starters, cassettes are scarce. Most people discarded what little they had left a long time ago. And while cassettes are currently the fastest-growing format on Discogs they still are dwarfed by the three big segments – downloads, vinyl and CD – because cassette production is so limited. AC/DC’s upcoming release, Power Up, and Lady Gaga’s Chromatica are among those becoming available or offered on cassette. Same with Everyday Life, the latest from Coldplay. This has propelled cassette sales to their highest level since 2004. But to be fair, these new cassette entries were promotionally-driven and more of a stunt than a commitment to the format. There are also a number of DIY artists (particularly in the hip hop space) who are using cassettes to promote their music because they are cheap and easy to distribute. Even boom boxes with cassette players are bouncing back.
There’s another reason why prices have grown so dramatically. Collectors are paying top dollar for hard to find rarities because it’s highly unlikely the original labels will go back into production to pump out new copies. The amounts these collectors are paying are staggering. A copy of Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark recently sold for $552. Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut sold for $550. Depeche Mode’s De’Pe’che Mode sold for $1,500. The cassette that is purported to have commanded the highest public sale price is The Artist (formerly known as Prince)’s The Versace Experience – Prelude 2 Gold. That went for the tidy sum of $4,117! It’s the same phenomenon as the 1966 Ferrari GTB “long nose” that sold at auction this year for $3.08 million and raised the price of all used Ferraris worldwide; a rising tide lifts all boats. This Prince cassette sale seems to have lifted the prices of all pre-recorded cassettes. Earlier this year I would rarely see any used tape priced under $5.99. Most were priced at $7.99 or higher. Only a few years ago most retailed around $1.99.
I don’t think this trend is going to change and as a minor collector in the segment I’m happy about that. I had never thought about putting a value on my cassette collection before. But with myself (along with many others, I’d imagine) it’s measured somewhere between what the market would pay and what those tapes meant to me in the moment they were first played. The delta between the two at times is fairly wide. I might just have to wait things out and see if my unopened copies of The Mavericks’ What A Crying Shame and Nirvana’s Nevermind reach a price that’s really worth the parting. For now, I’m hitting “pause.”