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.
“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 Duplication.ca offer blank cassettes made with clear shells (to prevent smuggling) and without any screws (they can be weaponized) just for prison use.
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.