Back to the future: cassettes launch comeback tour

The humble cassette is joining vinyl as a darling of audiophiles who miss side A and side B. (AFP)
Updated 24 March 2019

Back to the future: cassettes launch comeback tour

  • The niche revival has faced a global shortage of music-quality magnetic tape needed for production
  • ‘It died in 2000, as far as conventional wisdom was concerned, and it has made a strong comeback since’

NEW YORK: The humble cassette — that tiny little plastic rectangle containing the homemade mixtapes of yesteryear — is back, joining vinyl as a darling of audiophiles who miss side A and side B.
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 said 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 each, producing them by the thousands each month and exporting 95 percent worldwide, according to commercial director Theo Gardin.
The 27-year-old admits he didn’t know in his youth the joys — and pains — of the Walkman personal tape player, or the delicate strip of tape that tangles up and must be rewound with, say, a pen. Or a finger.
According to Stepp, it’s precisely 20-somethings like Gardin fast-forwarding demand, as young people seek something tangible in the Internet age.
Urban Outfitters — an American clothing brand catering to hipster types that also sells electronics — on its site spells out the mixtape process.
“If you’ve never spent 3-5 hours sitting by the radio, waiting for that one Hanson song to come on so you could add it to your mixtape, get pumped: you can now relive that experience,” it says.
“Let those ‘90s vibes wash over you, man.”
Cassette tape album sales in the US grew by 23 percent in 2018, according to tracker Nielsen Music, jumping from 178,000 copies the year prior to 219,000.
It’s nothing compared to 1994 sales of 246 million cassette albums, but significant considering the format was all but dead by the mid-2000s.
“As an old fogey I don’t want to imagine a world with no analog,” Stepp said. “The world around is analog; our ears are analog.”
“Digital recordings are very clean and sharp but there are no harmonics. These are digital pictures of audio recordings, if you will.”
Bobby May, a 29-year-old buyer at Burger Records in southern California, said that while “physical media in itself is a totally antiquated idea,” cassette sound has what he called a uniqueness.
“The consumer public is fickle and trends always change, but for the foreseeable future, I know tons of people will stay pretty crazy for records and vinyl.”
Last year vinyl saw revenues hit their highest level since 1988, totaling $419 million — an eight percent jump from the previous year.
Though vinyl’s sound quality is unquestionably superior to cassettes, May said tapes’ low cost makes them ideal for collectors.
“I still like stuff pilin’ up around me,” May laughed, adding that he probably has 500 tapes from Burger.
In addition to the homemade and indie cassettes, he cherishes several mainstream albums as well.
“I have a prized ‘Baby One More Time’ cassette,” he said, referring to pop princess Britney Spears’ debut album. “It looks great on my shelf.”

College golfer in hijab out to blaze trail for Muslim girls

Updated 19 April 2019

College golfer in hijab out to blaze trail for Muslim girls

  • One of the top junior golfers in Northern California coming out of high school, Ahmed was a starter in her first year at Nebraska and the No. 2 player most of this spring
  • She is believed to be the only golfer at the college level or higher who competes in a hijab

LINCOLN: Noor Ahmed outwardly lives her Muslim faith, and even growing up in a state as diverse as California she says she encountered hostility on the street, in school and on the golf course.
One of the top junior golfers in Northern California coming out of high school, Ahmed was a starter in her first year at Nebraska and the No. 2 player most of this spring. She is believed to be the only golfer at the college level or higher who competes in a hijab, the headscarf worn in adherence to the Muslim faith.
Arriving in Lincoln two years ago, Ahmed sensed hesitancy from teammates mostly from small Midwestern towns and unaccustomed to seeing a woman in a hijab. She didn’t feel embraced until an unfortunate yet unifying event roiled the campus midway through her freshman year.
A video surfaced of a student claiming to be the “most active white nationalist in the Nebraska area,” disparaging minorities and advocating violence. The student, it turned out, was in the same biology lecture class as Ahmed.
Teammates offered to walk with her across campus, and one who would become her best friend, Kate Smith, invited Ahmed to stay with her. She didn’t accept but was heartened by the gesture.
“That,” Smith said, “was when she realized how much each and every one of us care for her on the team, that it wasn’t just like, ‘Hey you’re our teammate.’ No, it’s ‘We want you to be safe, we want you to feel at home here.’“
Having grown up in the post-9/11 era, Ahmed, like many Muslims in the United States, has been a target for bullying and verbal abuse. She began wearing the hijab in middle school.
On the course, in an airport or even walking across campus she can feel the long stares and notices the glances. She said she has never been physically threatened — “that I know of” — and that most of the face-to-face insults came before she arrived at Nebraska.
Much of the venom spewed at her now comes on social media. She has been the subject of several media profiles, and each sparks another round of hateful messages. She acknowledges she reads but doesn’t respond to messages and that an athletic department sports psychologist has helped her learn how to deal with them.

Hijabi golfer Noor Ahmed. (AP)

“I’ve been called every racial slur in the book,” she said. “I’ve been told explicitly that people who look like me don’t play golf, we don’t have a right to exist in America, you should go home. It would definitely faze me a little bit, but it never deterred me. I’m really stubborn, so I’m going to prove you wrong, just wait. When people think they’re dragging me down, it kind of fuels the fire in me that I’m going to be a better golfer, I’m going to be a better student, I’m going to keep climbing up the ladder.”
The daughter of Egyptian immigrants is from a close-knit family in Folsom, California, and she steeled herself for the cultural adjustment she would have to make at Nebraska.
She dealt with loneliness and anxiety, especially her freshman year. She had difficulty finding a support network. There is a small Muslim community on campus, but she didn’t immerse herself in it. The demands on athletes are great, and they are largely segregated, eating and studying in facilities separate from those used by regular students.
Nebraska coach Robin Krapfl said she was initially concerned about how teammates would react to Ahmed. Krapfl remembered meeting with her golfers and telling them about her.
“I could tell by a couple of the looks and maybe even a comment or two that they weren’t 100 percent comfortable with that,” Krapfl said. “A lot of our girls come from small-town communities that are very limited in their ethnicity. It’s just the fear of the unknown. They had just never been exposed to being around someone from the Muslim faith.”
Krapfl said she saw a golfer or two roll their eyes, another shook her head. “I overheard, ‘Why would Coach bring someone like that on the team?’ “
“Luckily when she got here people could see her for who she was and the quality of person she was,” Krapfl said. “It took a while. It really did. You’ve got to get to know somebody, who they really are and not just what they look like.”
Smith said she sometimes cringes when she and Ahmed are in a group and the conversation turns to politics, immigration or even fashion, like when someone innocently or ignorantly tells Ahmed that she would look good in a short dress or a certain hairstyle.
“She can never wear a short dress, so why would you want to depict her as that?” Smith said. “You have to respect her beliefs and why she’s doing it. Also, I think a lot of things are connected to women’s beauty standards and how people don’t think she can look beautiful when she’s covered. I think she’s a really beautiful girl no matter how much skin she’s showing.”
For all the challenges Ahmed faced, there have been positives. Some people have complimented her for living her faith as she sees fit, a Muslim teen who golfs in a hijab and lives in the United Kingdom wrote to says she draws inspiration from her, and a player for another college team approached her at an event to tell her she recently converted to Islam and just wanted to say hi.

She started playing golf at 8. (AP)

“I remember going and crying and, wow, I’m not alone out here,” she said.
Ahmed said she’s naturally shy and a bit uncomfortable with the attention, but she hopes Muslim girls coming up behind her are watching.
“I grew up never seeing anyone like me,” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t realize how much grief I was carrying, having never seen an image of myself or someone who looked like me in popular American culture. It’s a big deal.
“Why are basketball and football so heavily African American? If I were black and I saw people who looked like me competing in that sport, that’s probably the sport I would choose. I think it’s really important when we’re talking about trying to make golf and other sports and other areas in American culture diverse, how important it is to see someone who looks like you and how it will fuel other people’s interest.”
Ahmed started playing golf at 8, and her parents encouraged her to take the sport to the highest level possible. Wearing the hijab has never interfered with her game and she has never considered not wearing it on the course.
“I think Muslim women who choose to observe it or choose not to observe it have the right to exist in any space they want to be in,” she said, “and I would feel like I would be sending a message that the hijab doesn’t exist in this place or it shouldn’t, and I don’t feel comfortable with that.”