Record Store Day in Pittsburgh finds more music shops selling cassette tapes | Pittsburgh City Paper

The cassette-tape comeback has reached Pittsburgh's record stores

click to enlarge Brightly colored new casette tapes are arranged on a sleek wooden shelf
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
A selection of tapes on display at the Government Center
Years before he was a music store clerk at Millvale’s legendary Attic Records, cassettes were a vital part of discovering music for Tony Theil. But recently, more and more people have come to Attic asking about tapes. After some consideration, the store put together a cassette wall around six months ago.

“We don't have a longstanding history with tapes at Attic,” explained Theil. “But younger kids are really coming in and buying tapes. I think it’s a cool format for them because they didn’t really grow up with tapes around the house like I did.”

Throughout the late 2010s and early 2020s, music lovers have helped drive a steady rise in cassette sales. Tapes represent a mere fraction of a percentage of all music consumed in the last year, down from 1984 when they accounted for 53% of all albums formats produced. But in 2022 alone, tapes had a 28% increase in sales, totaling 440,000 units sold according to one report, while 2023 saw a similar amount sold.

As marquee names like Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Bad Bunny begin to sell their albums in cassette form, Pittsburgh record stores and tape record labels have helped preserve the legacy of tapes as both a cheap and accessible way to consume music for years.

Cassettes were never the first choice for Josh Cozby, the owner of The Government Center on the Northside. But even as a record collector at heart, Cozby has a soft spot for physical media of all kinds. Since the store opened in 2019, it’s carried a few hundred tapes.

“As somebody who digs around in thrift stores and yard sales and whatnot, you find a cool tape, [and] it's hard to pass it up,” said Cozby. “As we bought more used collections at the store, tapes have a way of showing up. I think that we’ve seen the interest, not just from people who collect them, but I think they’ve got value with people as something interesting, something nostalgic, something that doesn't take up a ton of space, or weigh a ton.”

The Government Center’s selection of cassettes range from used punk and new wave to a plethora of current Pittsburgh artists, who often work with local tape labels like Crafted Sounds or Michi Tapes. Cozby attributes this to The Government Center’s performance space, which has led to natural relationships with Pittsburgh musicians.

“A tape is a nice way to have a physical thing in somebody's hand,” said Cozby. “It’s easy to do your own J-card and make something cool looking. If you are a band or a label operating at a small scale, tapes are definitely the way to go.”

click to enlarge The cassette-tape comeback has reached Pittsburgh's record stores
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
A corner display of cassettes at the Government Center
Eric Stevens has early memories of listening to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory during spring cleaning or driving to the mall. But in 2021, Stevens started pressing tapes for his friends, naming the label Michi Tapes after his Nakamichi ZX-7 tape deck.

“I feel like I've always kind of been into tape. I don't think I ever fell out of it,” said Stevens. “[Michi is] kind of more than a tape label at this point, even though, obviously, I think tapes are one of the more important things. We push analog in general as an aesthetic.”

Part of the appeal of tapes for Stevens is the price point. Music lovers can enjoy a physical medium without spending the exuberant amounts required for vinyl, while bands are able to cheaply press smaller amounts of cassettes.

“That was an easy way to support bands and buy physical media, was by getting some band’s like $5 tape ... Bands are very adamant about keeping tape prices pretty low,” said Stevens. “You could really special release something and not have to do a big run. It feels pretty special to people. If they got like one of like 10 tapes made, it’s a rarity item.”

click to enlarge The cassette-tape comeback has reached Pittsburgh's record stores
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The Government Center
Greg Anderson, the owner of Mt. Lebanon’s Vinyl Remains, understands the appeal of limited selections. At Vinyl Remains, Anderson stocks 30 to 50 tapes at any given moment, first making sure they’re in good condition and are worth the listener’s time.

“I try to be really careful with the cassettes not to have a bunch of them just to have them. I want to have ones that are pretty cool,” said Anderson. “I sell cassettes, but there's sometimes where I won’t sell them for weeks at a time, and then sometimes someone will come in only looking for cassettes.”

Attic Records tries to stock local tapes too, focusing on punk, rap, and metal releases while avoiding the newer, more popular releases like Taylor Swift or the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks because of their priciness. But as long as people are getting involved with physical modes of listening to music, it doesn’t matter if it’s a record, CD, or cassette tape, according to Theil.

“We're just so lucky,” said Theil. “Pittsburgh is a city of music lovers, and that love comes in all formats.”

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By Mars Johnson