There’s also the size. “It’s hard to think of it now, but it was once called the ‘compact cassette,’” Sterne says, referring to the dawn of cassette technology in the 1960s, which were taking on the then-standard in “compact” media, the 8-track tape, and continued to reinforce the compactness of the format well into the 1980s.
“There was an aesthetic of compactness back in the ’80s that we don’t think of now,” Sterne says. “But does a cassette feel compact to someone who’s 22 the way it did to somebody in 1978? Probably not.”
While solo artists such as Stubb painstakingly duplicates tapes and designs the packaging (known as J cards) for individual cassettes, bands such as The Bohannons turn to the professionals.
“We have our cassetttes manufactured at Wholesale Tape and Supply in Chattanooga,” Marty Bohannon says of the company formally known as WTSmedia, which started making cassettes for local churches in 1977 and has grown with media and now duplicates and manufactures CDs and other recordable media.
“We have long been customers there because as an independent band we have a lot of boutique projects and they do a good job,” says Bohannon. “They are not the only provider, but they are local and luckily still work with a lot of churches who still record on cassettes.”
For Sterne, the exclusiveness of subcultures is perhaps the most interesting explanation for the cassette renaissance.
“If you are making music and not making it available online, that’s a statement, an aesthetic or political one, about not wanting to participate,” he says. “I think for a certain music collector, there’s a feeling of being lost, when everything’s available and you’re being overwhelmed by so much quantity and not being able to use music the way you want. In fact, who goes to a store that sells records? People who want to expend a little extra effort to listen to music. Why would you do it otherwise?”
Hoffmann, the label owner, is too young to have grown up listening to cassettes, but he remembers being fascinated by them.
“I grew up with cassettes, and it was always kind of home-y, just the tape idea,” he says. “I still love watching movies on VHS. It’s like listening to something on a record.”
His latest cassette sampler was produced and designed entirely by Hoffmann as an expression of everything he loves about the medium.
“It’s just what I’d want to see in a store,” Hoffmann says. “I try to make them seem sort of modern, but at the same time, how modern can you get? It’s a cassette tape.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the New Haven (Conn.) Advocate, an Association of Alternative Newsmedia sister paper of The Pulse.