Firm Revives Cassette Tape Production

(p. A1) SPRINGFIELD, Mo.— Steve Stepp and his team of septuagenarian engineers are using a bag of rust, a kitchen mixer larger than a man and a 62-foot-long contraption that used to make magnetic strips for credit cards to avert a disaster that no one saw coming in the digital-music era.

The world is running out of cassette tape.

National Audio Co., where Mr. Stepp is president and co-owner, has been hoarding a stockpile of music-quality, ⅛-inch-wide magnetic tape from suppliers that shut down in the past 15 years after music lovers ditched cassettes. National Audio held on. Now, many musicians are clamoring for cassettes as a way to physically distribute their music.

The company says it has less than a year’s supply of tape left. So it is building the first manufacturing line for (p. A10) high-grade ferric oxide cassette tape in the U.S. in decades. If all goes well, the machine will churn out nearly 4 miles of tape a minute by January. And not just any tape. “The best tape ever made,” boasts Mr. Stepp, 69 years old. “People will hear a whole new product.”

. . .

Cassettes are cool again, particularly with listeners raised on earbuds, MP3s and streaming music. Sales are small but rising, according to Nielsen Music data.

. . .

Nostalgia and analog chic aside, cassettes solve two dilemmas: the high cost of making vinyl records and getting fans to buy digital downloads, particularly when bands are touring. A hundred cassettes packaged with download coupons can be made in a few weeks for a few hundred dollars, compared with months and thousands of dollars for vinyl. They often sell at retail for as little as $5 each.

“Plus, tapes fit in your breast pocket, which is pretty great,” says Mr. Miranda, the “Hamilton” composer.

. . .

Mr. Stepp’s company has had to rely on repurposed equipment, including an 80-year-old machine built to seal cigarette packs with cellophane. It was modified to wrap cassettes. National Audio has a Noah’s ark of spare parts to keep what Mr. Stepp calls its “orphaned” gear running.

. . .

Mr. Stepp, who owns National Audio with his wife and adult children, hopes to ship the first cassettes made with the new tape by January [2018]. After that, he plans to start selling bulk tape to other cassette makers.

He is working the phones to promote the new product and take orders. Mr. Stepp says he treats every customer alike, whether they order 50 cassettes or 15,000, recalling that the company’s first order from Joyce Meyer Ministries brought in just $35.

“You never know who you’re dealing with or who that person will become,” he says.

For the full story, see:

Ryan Dezember and Anne Steele. “Global Shortage of Magnetic Tape Has Cassette Lovers Reeling.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, November 4, 2017): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 3, 2017, and has the title “A Global Shortage of Magnetic Tape Leaves Cassette Fans Reeling.” The final sentences of the online version, which are quoted above, contain several more words, and one more sentence, than the final sentences of the print version.)

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