When Bob Roets got into the record store business in the late 1970s, 8-track was the most popular medium among customers. A few years later, cassette tapes took over, followed by CD players.
Vinyl saw a resurgence in popularity more than a decade ago, which helped record stores survive as the music industry shifted to digital formats. Now Roets, who has operated Wooden Nickel Music stores since 1982 and bought Neat Neat Neat Records in 2019, is seeing a rise of interest in cassette tapes.
A big reason is the price, he says. The average price of a used cassette is $2.50 to $3. The few new releases that are available on cassette are around $10, which makes the titles cheaper in that format than CD or vinyl.
Vinyl also isn't portable for people who want to take their music with them on the go. And there are always people who want to stay ahead of trends – or out of them – and have been looking for an alternative to vinyl records.
As Roets points out, tastes and trends are always evolving.
“The record business is really interesting,” he says. “The minute you stand still and you think 'OK, we've got this figured out,' then people change and it morphs into something else.”
Wooden Nickel's North Anthony Boulevard store is heavy on nostalgia, and that is where customers can find the majority of Roets' cassette stock – probably the largest collection in the region outside Indianapolis, he says. From the front counter to the back wall are cassettes on display from a variety of genres. Top sellers of older tapes are classic and hard rock.
Though cassette popularity has increased in the past four to five years, Roets had previously seen a steady interest from a key market: car collectors.
Around the fall auto auctions in Auburn, Wooden Nickel gets an influx of customers looking for cassettes to play in the cars they bought. That's the week Roets says he sells the most tapes.
Some artists are releasing new music on cassettes, but Roets says that is still minimal. He saw the same thing with vinyl records more than a decade ago – artists and record companies were skeptical of the trend so they didn't make many vinyl copies at the start.
Roets' stores buy old albums on cassette, from about 25 cents to $1.50 per album, and Wooden Nickel also sells blank cassettes for people who want to record their own tapes.
Will the popularity of cassette tapes stick around the way vinyl has? Roets isn't sure.
Vinyl has some advantages over other mediums, such as better sound quality, bigger cover art and liner notes that are easier to read in the larger format.
But for some people, vinyl isn't about those things as much as it is about collecting, Roets says. It's hard to say if the same can be said about cassettes.
“I don't know if the collectability is there as much,” Roets says. “So that, in the long run, is one of the things I would say may keep it from coming back.”