Cassettes again darling of audiophiles
But as top musicians including Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber release their music on tape and demand continues to climb, the niche revival has faced a global shortage of music-quality magnetic tape needed for production. Now, two facilities―one in the American Midwest and the other in western France—have stepped in to meet the need. “It’s a good place to be―there’s plenty of business for both of us,” said Steve Stepp, who founded the National Audio Company in Springfield, Missouri with his father 50 years ago. He said that around 2000 the “imperial hegemony of the CD” cut his business, which stayed alive as a major manufacturer of books on tape that remained popular. But despite the astronomical rise of streaming, Stepp said rock bands like Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins began seeking to manufacture anniversary tapes in the mid-2000s, launching a cassette comeback tour. “That convinced major record labels that there was still life in the cassette as a music form,” he said. Several years ago, National Audio bought 300,000 reels of tape from a South Korean company that gave up music-grade tape production. As that stockpile began to shrink, his facility in November 2016 was faced with a choice: either make reels, or fold. His business invested several million dollars buying up old equipment from defunct production facilities, and last year National Audio manufactured 18 million audio cassettes, Stepp said, selling to 3,500 record labels globally. “I think it’s got a bright future,” Stepp told AFP of the cassette market. “It died in 2000, as far as conventional wisdom was concerned, and it has made a strong comeback since.” “Reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.” Since November, Mulann―a small French company near Mont Saint Michel―has also rebooted production, the country’s first manufacturing of music-grade tape in two decades. Already selling magnetic tape for metro tickets or military recording studios, the Mulann group acquired a plant to produce analog audio tapes under the trademark Recording The Masters. For Jean-Luc Renou, Mulann’s CEO, there’s still a place for analog sound in today’s ephemeral music world. “Take the example of heating: you have radiators at home. It’s comfortable, it’s digital―but next to you, you can make a good fire.” “Pleasure” is the goal, he said: “That’s the cassette or vinyl.” The company sells tapes for 3.49 euros each, producing them by the thousands each month and exporting 95 percent worldwide, according to commercial director Theo Gardin.