From near-extinction to retro cool, cassettes make a comeback

It seems incredible at a time when most people stream music or buy it digitally to see the return of what many thought was a nearly-extinct way to listen to music, but an increasing number of bands in P.E.I. are releasing their demos and albums this way.

More P.E.I. musicians releasing their music on tape

Back Alley Music is carrying more new and used cassettes with the resurgence of the tape. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

It seems incredible at a time when most people stream music or buy it digitally to see the return of what many thought was a nearly-extinct way to listen to music, but an increasing number of bands in P.E.I. are releasing their demos and albums this way. 

Award-winning Island musician Emilee Sorrey says she knew she wanted to release her latest album Thick as Thieves on cassette when she saw a tape player in her friend's vintage car. 

"Cause you know those people who have those cars parked out front at your show, they're going to leave with a tape for sure because that's the one thing they can listen to in their car." 

The first tape she ran across was by the band Alvvays, whose members also have Island roots. That was a couple of years ago in Toronto, but she sees tapes all the time now. 

Emilee Sorrey says she decided to put out a cassette with her release Thick as Thieves after seeing a tape player in a friend's vintage car. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

Keeping pace with CDs

Sorrey wasn't sure how her band's cassette would sell when they released 150 of them a year ago, but she only has about 20 left. 

She said part of her decision was based on cost — a cassette is much cheaper than vinyl to produce — but Sorrey said there's the cool factor too. 

You can buy the cassette tape to have the decorative piece or, if you have a cassette player, listen to it.- Ryan Kirkpatrick, Back Alley Discs

"I don't even have a CD player, to be honest."

But she does have a tape player at home. 

She plans to release another cassette next year when she puts out another six-song LP. 

Ryan Kirkpatrick at Back Alley Discs says he noticed cassettes were back when they started showing up in the P.E.I. punk scene four or five years ago.

All at once, they were available for sale at concerts. His collection started with local band Uncle's demo release Primata, then a Pest Control album and Year of the Rat's Ctrl+Alt+Del — all Charlottetown-based bands. 

Ryan Kirkpatrick at Back Alley Discs in Charlottetown doesn't think the return of the cassette will be as big as the vinyl comeback has been. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

'CDs just aren't really popular'

"In the punk scene it was a way to release music 'cause not everyone can afford to put out a seven-inch or 12-inch vinyl, and CDs just aren't really popular nowadays. So cassettes sort of fill that void," said Kirkpatrick. 

Local band The Iron Eye are expected to release a cassette any day now, and the Halifax band Botfly only releases on cassettes and vinyl, with no plans to release on CD in the forseeable future, according to Kirkpatrick. 

Selling cassettes at shows is a great merchandise item, and a good way for bands to promote upcoming albums. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

​"They just started piling up. Every band would come through town with a few cassettes, and they're never super-expensive and it helps you remember who the band is," said Kirkpatrick.

He argues a $5 cassette is more affordable than a T-shirt and a great memento of the night. 

"So you can buy the cassette tape to have the decorative piece or, if you have a cassette player, listen to it."

And it's an inexpensive way to support the artist too. 

"That maybe gives the band a couple of bucks to put towards gas or whatever to get to the next show," Kirkpatrick said. 

But what about sound quality? 

Sorrey isn't so sure the sound quality on tape is an issue. 

"Nobody's brought up the quality," she said.

"I think there's something a little bit nostalgic about that kind of, you know, hum on them and that sound." 

I think it's neat that it came back. But there's certain things that definitely won't, like 8-track's not going to make a comeback.- Ryan Kirkpatrick, Back Alley Discs

Kirkpatrick said bands also uses tapes as advanced promo. 

"Lot of bands use cassettes as a pre-cursor before their album comes out," he said.

"So if they're on tour and their album's not out for another couple months but the album is done, they'll put it on cassette, and sell it as a special thing you can buy at their shows." 

He said the Hamilton-based band TV Freaks did that a few years ago with their second album, and the B.C. band Ahna is currently selling a cassette as a teaser.

Not having a tape player is a problem some people run into, but Back Alley is collecting as many as possible to sell second-hand. 

Emilee Sorrey, with bandmate and album producer Colin Buchanan, hasn't heard sound quality complaints with their tape. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

Cheaper, quicker than vinyl 

Kirkpatrick says producing a tape is usually a lot quicker too. With very few vinyl pressing plants in North America, he said bands can wait six months to a year to get their recording. 

"I had a friend's band that they did a seven-inch and by the time it actually came out the band had already broken up." 

And the cost is higher too — each record costs at least $8, versus a tape that can be made for around $2, according to Kirkpatrick.

Or even cheaper if you go the DIY route in your basement with labels and a Sharpie. That's something Sorrey's seen a lot on P.E.I.

Her cassettes costs almost as much as CDs to produce at around $3.50 each, but she went for added-value pink tapes embossed with the band name to mirror the Thick as Thieves CD design. 

Back Alley is trying to find second-hand cassette players for sale, but admits they can be harder to find than old record players. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

'A sub-culture thing'

Kirkpatrick isn't convinced the cassette's resurgence is going to be as big as vinyl. 

"I think it's just a sub-culture thing," not a super-huge comeback. 

But for Sorrey, the jury is still out.

"I guess we'll wait and see 'cause I don't know if anyone predicted the vinyl comeback the way that it's happened." 

Could 8-tracks be next? Ryan Kirkpatrick at Back Alley doesn't think so, but U.S. rapper Kendrick Lamar just released an album on 8-track. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

A neat comeback

Major Canadian record labels and well-known bands are now releasing cassettes, including Arcade Fire, Nelly Furtado and Justin Bieber.

And in case you think this is something only happening in Canada, Eminem is about to re-release his 2000 hit album Marshall Mathers LP on cassette.

"I think it's neat that it came back," said Kirkpatrick.

"But there's certain things that definitely won't, like 8-track's not going to make a comeback."

But U.S. rapper Kendrick Lamar recently released an album on 8-track. So never say never.