Cassettes make an unlikely comeback in Baltimore

Years after being upstaged by CDs and digital music, the tapes have become kitsch, collectable and even cool

  • The True Vine Record Shop in Hampden is devoting more shop space to cassette tapes, such as these by Baltimore musician Jake Freeman.
The True Vine Record Shop in Hampden is devoting more shop space… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
April 15, 2011|By Sam Sessa, The Baltimore Sun

Every morning for the past eight months, Nicole Mazarakis wakes up, rolls out of bed and puts on music.

Instead of turning on an iPod or playing a CD, Mazarakis pops a cassette into the old tape deck in her bedroom. She likes classical tapes from composers like Mozart and Haydn, but lately she's been listening to a new cassette by the enigmatic Baltimore singer/songwriter Daniel Higgs.

"It's a really nice thing to wake up to in the morning," she said. "If you only have 30 minutes to get out of the house, it's not really that convenient to put a record on — you've got to flip it. Cassettes are great for me."

This might be the age of iPods and now iPhones, but the lowly cassette tape — long abandoned by the average listener — is making a small yet fervent comeback, fueled by a devoted base of indie musicians and fans. In the past several months, Baltimore record stores such as True Vine and Sound Garden have upped their selections of tapes, and local record labels are releasing albums and compilations on cassettes.

"It's catching on," said Alex Ashkenes, a manager at the Fells Point record store Sound Garden. "It's the cool factor — because they're so limited, it's another thing to collect."

In the mid-2000s, Sound Garden stopped carrying cassettes, mostly because record distributors stopped releasing them, and demand had all but dried up. But about a year ago, cassettes began to creep back on the shelves, as Baltimore record labels such as Friends Records and Lost Ghosts put out local albums on cassettes. Cheaper than vinyl, the releases are typically kept to a couple hundred copies each, and new tapes sell for about $5. And, in keeping with the mind-set that has driven the vinyl record resurgence in recent years, tapes appeal to fans of analog music.

"When I first started, maybe 14 of my friends had cassette decks," said Chris Day, who runs Lost Ghosts and also works at Sound Garden. "Now, everyone I live with has a cassette deck."

Portability and durability could have something to do with cassettes' increasing popularity. Unlike CDs or, certainly, records, a cassette tape easily slips into the average pocket, with room to spare. Last year, the Baltimore indie label Friends Records set up a table with a couple hundred tapes at Whartscape, the arts and music festival run by Wham City. They ended up selling nearly half of the tapes, which featured music from Baltimore bands.

"Tapes do really well at shows — sometimes better than records or CDs," said Brett Yale, the label's co-owner. "Maybe it's because they're so easy to put in your pocket. We joke that people buy them for the art and more to collect them than actually listen to them."

That might be the case with Justin Blemly, who started buying cassettes at local concerts before he had a tape deck to play them. About a year ago, he scored a tape deck for $5 at a yard sale, but then found it didn't work. He ordered replacement parts from China and installed them, only to find the tape deck still wouldn't cooperate. Then a couple weekends ago, he found another tape deck at a thrift shop in Laurel.

Blemly, a 29-year-old who lives in Charles Village and runs the arts and culture blog Beatbots, said he buys tapes just to have them.

"I can find anything I want to listen to online," Blemly said. "If it's a band I really want to support, I'll buy [a tape]. They're cheap, too. It's like, why not?"

The record store with perhaps the city's largest selection of cassettes is True Vine in Hampden, run by Jason Willett. True Vine has more than a hundred cassettes, tucked into shelves hung on a wall above racks of vinyl records. They're a mix of new and old. But True Vine, where Mazarakis volunteers, is planning to more than triple its offerings in the coming weeks. Willett recently acquired a wooden shelf from a friend, which he thinks should hold 200 to 300 tapes, and he wants to fill it up soon.

Nostalgia is also one of the driving forces behind the cassette comeback, Willett said. Most of his cassette-buying customers are in their teens, 20s and 30s. Some remember having tapes as kids, but for others, it's a new thing.

"There is a certain generation that had fun with cassettes in the '80s and early '90s," he said. "But there's a whole generation of young people who haven't been able to enjoy a cassette revolution."

Sound quality is also part of the appeal, Willett said. While cassettes usually don't sound as rich as records, they have a character that can't be found on digital recordings such as mp3s or CDs.

"You can have a really pleasantly dirty listen," Willett said. "The distortion actually has a warmth and richness and fat sound. You do it on digital, it's thin and has a crispy, crackling distortion, which most people hate."

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