Forget Record Store Day. The latest hip indie event is Cassette Store Day on Saturday.
The fledgling celebration promoting the glory of the once-popular analog tape format is only in its third year, but already includes stores in Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Japan and the U.S.
Many shops that sell cassettes will hold sales, host live performances and offer special cassette editions from bands including the Pixies and the Ramones.
Perhaps surprisingly, many cassette buyers won't be able to play their tapes, since the hardware is increasingly rare. Instead, they buy a cassette as a cherished souvenir of a band they like. To listen to the tunes, they use the download code that many cassette purchases include.
Cal MacLean owns the tiny Shortstack Records on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto. While he stocks mostly vinyl, cassette tapes are an important part of his passion.
"I knew I wanted to carry some cassettes — at first, mostly as an experiment," he told CBC News. "I started with only a dozen, all from the '90s. And people would get excited or ask if I had any more."
"For me, there's some nostalgia but I also like that they kind of force the album format on listeners. It's not easy to skip songs, so you need a certain amount of patience — unlike MP3s or streaming, which are much more pass-fail experiences."
He's participating in Cassette Store Day for the first time this year by offering a few hundred used cassette tapes for sale, mostly '90s artists but also hip hop, heavy metal and classic rock, even Elvis Presley.
'Limits to the demand'
Co-owner Dave Muir of Sloth Records calls the day "more of a low-key version of Record Store Day" and said "it's definitely on the rise but I think there are limits to the demand."
In a typical week his store will sell only 10 to 20 cassettes, but he's confident Saturday will bring a big increase in business, especially since he's stocking many new cassettes by popular performers such as Death Cab for Cutie, Grimes and Atmosphere.
He also pointed out that many local bands are now putting out cassettes. "This is a way for working musicians who struggle to get their music out," he said.
Ashly Gatto-Cussen, based in Ottawa, handles cassette orders for Duplication.ca, a company with locations in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. She sees the demand for cassettes exploding.
"We are extremely busy like I've never seen," she said.
Bands typically order between 50 and 200 copies of a tape at $3 to $4 per unit that they can sell to fans for a few dollars more, making it more more affordable than vinyl. Often they will include a download code so buyers can listen to the music on a computer or iPod.
No one is manufacturing new cassette players, says Gatto-Cussen.
She prefers the sound quality of cassettes, even though she admits "some would say it's not the best."
But she cites the nostalgia factor to explain the cassette comeback. "I remember going for car trips with my parents and playing an old Rick Astley cassette and singing along," she said.
While cassette tape sales are still tiny, even compared to vinyl, they're up. The online music database Discogs reported a 37 per cent rise in 2015. Among the popular Canadian artists who have tried out the format for recent releases: Nelly Furtado and Arcade Fire.
No doubt the retro format does have a hipster appeal. Advance listening parties for fans of American indie band Bon Iver's latest album 22, A Million were done on a boom box playing a cassette tape. Spin magazine quipped that the "super-duper artisanal aesthetic decision is right out of a Portlandia sketch." The album is available on cassette as well as other more modern formats.
Jasmyn Burke, singer for the Toronto band Weaves, doesn't even own a cassette player, but she's excited that her band's self-titled debut album is being released on cassette by Buzz Records on Saturday in a run of 100 copies.
"It's the cutest of all the different ways of experiencing music," she said, noting that the cassettes tuck easily into a purse. She also loves the tactile qualities of rewinding a cassette or fixing crinkled tape and spooling it back into its case.
Weaves previously sold cassette versions of its EP at shows for $10 or less.
"People, when they saw them, were very nostalgic."
"Who knows if they play it, but it was a far cheaper way to give people our music," she said.
Whether the cassette tape comeback is just a passing fad, or will continue to grow the way vinyl has, is still anyone's guess.
"These days, apps become trendy then are quickly replaced, but there are qualities about the old formats — whether it's cassettes or vinyl — that have prevented them from becoming entirely obsolete," said MacLean.
"I don't know if the popularity of cassettes will ever reach the heights that vinyl has, but I think it's worth considering their ongoing appeal."