You might have recorded songs on it to make the ultimate mix to put in a boom box. You also might have recorded your voice onto it or used the end of a pencil to wind it back up after it became unraveled.
If you haven’t figured out what “it” is yet, then you might be too young to remember how awesome it was to break open the plastic case of a band’s new album or flip this thing over to hear what was on the other side. It’s the audio cassette, an almost mostly forgotten piece of technology after the emergence of compact discs, MP3s, and streaming audio. But the audio cassette isn’t quite dead, and there’s one company that is doing better than ever before by just making cassette tapes.
In Springfield, Missouri, the National Audio Company was started in 1969, and today they are the last sole surviving manufacturer of audio cassettes. They didn’t start making the cassettes until 1980, right around when cassettes were beginning to hit their stride, and they haven’t stopped since. While the National Audio Company continues to flourish making audio cassettes, you have to look back at the history of the cassette to see why.
The compact cassette was released by Philips in 1962 and came in two forms; pre-recorded or blank. Player/recorders were introduced to play the tapes, and by the end of the 1960s, 2.4 million players had been sold. In the early 1970s, the sound quality of audio cassettes began to rival 8-track tapes, and cassettes soon overtook them in the marketplace. Cassettes also became a popular alternative to 12-inch vinyl records since they could be recorded over and over again.
Into the late 70s and the entirety of the 80s, audio cassettes boomed in popularity. They were portable and convenient and became even more popular with the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979. The popularity of the audio cassette began to fizzle, however, with the introduction of the compact disc and its superior sound quality in the early 1990s.
By 1993, compact disc sales had eclipsed audio cassette sales. Pre-recorded music cassette sales went from 442 million in 1990 to 274,000 in 2007. By the time 2009 came around, only 34,000 music cassettes had been sold. While the audio cassette seemed to be relegated to the dustbin of technological history, National Audio Company was still churning out cassettes at record numbers.
In the mid-2000s, National Audio began to increase its cassette duplicating services, which is the production of copies from a master onto many cassettes, as others in the industry started to move fully toward compact discs. They bought up the equipment of other duplication companies around this time as there was a continued demand for cassettes for books on tape, in teaching, and for religious needs.
In 2014, National Audio sold more than 10 million tapes, more than any other year since the company’s founding in 1969. They’ve even continued in the music business and have made deals with major labels as well as indie bands to put their music on audio cassettes again. Around 70% of the company’s sales are actually from music cassettes, and the remaining sales come from blank cassettes.
There seems to be no question that the current retro movement has helped spur the continuation of the audio cassette as it has done for vinyl records, and it seems the audio cassette still has some life in it.
Updated April 12, 2021