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I’ve Found a Reason for the Cassette Revival–and It’s Not What I Expected

A bunch of us met for breakfast on Sunday ahead of our annual trip to The Downtown Record Show in Toronto. Naturally, the conversation was peppered with plenty of music geekery. When the conversation turned to upcoming releases, I asked if anyone was buying this whole cassette revival nonsense. That’s when one of the guys–an employee of a major label–spoke up.

“It’s crazy, but it’s not going away. And I know why.”

He had our attention. “I was looking through the list of upcoming premium releases issued by the US side of the label. A bunch of them had catalogue numbers beginning with ‘P.’ I’d never seen that before so I called up my guy in America and asked about them.

“‘Oh, those are cassettes,’ he said.

“‘Cassettes? Why?'”

“There was a pause and then he said ‘They’re prison releases.'”

Prison releases? Yep. There are enough people incarcerated in the US–over 2.2 million as of 2013, the highest prison population in the world–for convicts to form a viable standalone music market.

But why cassettes?  CDs are forbidden because they can be turned into shanks. MP3 players are allowed but without Internet access, they’re kinda useless. How do you load them up with music? Vinyl? Fuhgeddaboutit. The only remaining option is the lowly cassette.

But you can’t use just any cassette. A little investigation uncovers companies like Fortress Audio and offer blank cassettes made with clear shells (to prevent smuggling) and without any screws (they can be weaponized) just for prison use.

Prison Cassette

Then we have services like Music 4 Inmates and 8-Track-Shack that specialize in providing music for the incarcerated. Amazing, huh?

Take a look at this article in Spin:

Cassettes may be a relic of the pre-digital era, but there are a few places in this country where those unloved plastic tapes are holding on strong. Although many corrections departments are tiptoeing cautiously into the digital future by introducing MP3 players to their inmate populations (see our feature on the subject), at prisons in New York and Illinois (as well as some facilities in other states), the only way an offender can listen to music is on a cassette ordered from an approved vendor.

Pack Central, operated by owner Bob Paris, is one such company. Paris ran the mail-order department for a record store in Van Nuys, California, in the ’70s, and noticed he was sending a lot of packages into prisons. When he graduated from college in 1980, he opened Pack Central, with an exclusive focus on serving the nation’s incarcerated.

“At the time I started,” Paris explains, “to fill up empty space in their classified section, Rolling Stone would run a list of names and addresses of people in prison seeking pen pals. I’d cut out those addresses, use them as a shipping label and send them a catalog. That got my catalog into facilities all over the country.”

Read the rest here.

So the next time some hipster romanticizes cassette culture, just remind him/her that the only reason the cassette still exists is because of convicted murderers, thieves, drug dealers, rapists and perverts.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38536 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

10 thoughts on “I’ve Found a Reason for the Cassette Revival–and It’s Not What I Expected

  • The title of this post is pretty good, but the last half of your final sentence (“…the only reason…”) is phenomenal click bait – I would have used that as your lede.

  • ugh… great article right up until the summary. “cassettes are a practical solution for music in prisons, therefore cassette cultures is indelibly tied to the worst of the worst of society”. holy shit, are you really that dense and prejudiced? yes, a large portion of the prison population are bad guys who need to be locked up. but the primary focus of this article is prisons in the US. the American Prison system is an industry. they routinely lock up non-violent people for minor offenses, because more prisoners means bigger budgets for the prisons. non-violent drug offenders of the caliber that wouldn’t even see the inside of a courthouse here in Canada account for up to 20% of the prison population in some states. you have unfairly and ignorantly painted hundreds of thousands of people as scum because they got pulled into a backwards system and sentenced to decades for buying a dime bag. if you think it doesn’t happen, you’re not paying attention. shame on you, Alan, I thought you were better than this.

    • That’s how you interpreted that paragraph? Seriously? You turned THAT into a political statement? That’s stretching things, dude.

      Your words, “Cassettes are a practical solution for music in prisons, therefore cassette cultures is indelibly tied to the worst of the worst of society” is blunt but more-or-less correct. The point I’m making is that cassettes are still largely a thing because they’re being used in large numbers by people who are in prison. And most people in prison are there because of they’ve been tried and convicted of serious offences like murder, rape, theft and whatever else. And if not for the prison population market–which is made up mostly of bad, bad people–the cassette might have faded away long ago.

      Yes, there are people locked up on dubious and specious grounds, but how does that change the fact that the cassette exists largely to serve the prison population? And that the majority of people deserve to be there?

  • I just read over that last paragraph again, trying to give you a fair shake, but now I’m even more disgusted. if it wasn’t for the fact that 95% of the content on this site is excellent, this article would have me reaching for the “unfollow” button on my twitter feed.

    • Note that I didn’t write that last paragraph. That was a quote from the Spin article.

  • Many Classic cars can only take cassettes, that is another “Only reason” 😉

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