There’s a modern weather station on top of an old brick factory building near downtown Springfield, Missouri. At all times it calculates the relative air temperature, the wind speed, the barometric pressure, and the humidity. In the building below, many fields of science are at work, among them magnetics, physics, chemistry, and fluid dynamics. What sort of laboratory is this, and what could it possibly be producing?
Cassette tape. A lot of cassette tape. Hollow Block Machine
“The audio cassette is a remarkable product. It’s inexpensive, it’s durable, and next to the vinyl record is the oldest format in continuous use,” Steve Stepp says. He’s the President of the National Audio Company, the company he and his father Warren Williams Stepp founded in 1969. In the over five decades since, the National Audio Company has weathered seismic shifts in musical formats, the internet, multiple economic recessions, and now a pandemic. Today the National Audio Company stands as one of the last places in the world making new cassette tape. “On a typical day at National Audio we manufacture between four and six million lineal feet of tape. It’s all cassette tape, we don’t make anything else,” he says.
Along with that tape, the company also duplicates and packages cassettes for all the major music labels and over 5,000 independent labels worldwide. The NAC isn’t just dabbling in a medium for hobby collectors and nostalgists: according to the entertainment data tracker Luminate, the sales of cassette tapes almost doubled in 2021 from a year prior. “During the pandemic, one of the miraculous things that happened was we returned to a point where the audio cassette and the vinyl record both outsold CDs and the commercial music market,” Stepp says. “And that is something nobody would have ever bet would have happened 15 or 20 years ago.”
Some of the highest selling cassettes in the last few years were tapes made right here in Springfield, including the famous mixtape from the Guardians of the Galaxy film, the soundtrack for the television series Stranger Things, and the soundtrack cassette for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of Stepp’s personal favorite projects. They are made on the same equipment, and at the same time as cassettes for small independent labels and musicians selling their tapes on Bandcamp or giving them out to friends.
“We will have anywhere from 200 to 600 music releases working in the plant at any given time. Everything goes on at one time. We kind of have a joke here: Forward In All Directions. That’s our motto,” Stepp says. “You just have to be you have to be too dumb to know that your business is over with and too determined to stay in it that you won’t get out. We say stubbornness and stupidity as well has kept us here.”
Cassettes are, and have always been, undeniably cool. In form alone they are remarkable symbols of utility, with their inexpensive construction and unassuming physical presence. They are also a crucial link to the evolution of the presentation of music in the 20th century. Carrying over some context from the vinyl record, there are two sides to an album, adding up to at most about an hour of sound which still needed to be flipped around halfway, complete with cover art and a lyrics sheet. The cassette, however, can be held in one hand, and more importantly, like the 8-track before, could be played by a tape deck in your car. It also marks the first audio medium that could be manipulated easily by an individual at home, allowing listeners to create their own cherished mixtapes and musicians to make their own recordings.
Emily Freidenrich is the author of Almost Lost Arts: Traditional Crafts and the Artisans Keeping Them Alive (Chronicle Books, 2019). She included Stepp and the National Audio Company’s art of cassette-making along with nineteen other traditional artisans around the world, including bookmenders, globemakers, kintsugi artists, and neon sign makers.
“Cassette tapes hit that sweet spot of nostalgic, tangible objects. They are aesthetically pleasing in sound and in their neat little designed cases, but more so they require a very intentional ritual of choosing a discrete album to listen to at a time,” Freidenrich says. “Meanwhile, our digital media lives conveniently on our portable devices and is infinitely streamable and perfectly programmed for the best quality…There is a slowness and imperfection to analog media that feels very human.”
She sees National Audio as a small family business that has held on long enough to be put in the unique position of both the preservers and providers of the continuing legacy of audio cassettes. “For Steve, this was a business he started with his father decades ago, originally focusing on audio books and spoken word, now carrying the whole legacy of cassette tapes onward for not just the audiophiles but also nostalgic listeners, and a new generation who are discovering cassette tapes,” she says.
When National Audio Company started, Steve and his father were loading blank cartridges themselves and selling them to radio and television stations, as well as selling reel-to-reel tape to recording studios around the country. Sales representatives from various companies would visit NAC once a month, and Steve remembers the first time a representative from the Ampex Corporation showed him a cassette.
“The fella showed me a cassette and he said ‘What do you think of that, Steve?’ And with my usual foresight, I said, ‘Well, it looks like maybe you could put that in a little doll and it would have a voice. I can’t think of any other possible use for it,’” Stepp says. “And he said ‘It’s gonna be a little bigger than that.’ And it turned out it was.”
Stepp says the NAC began buying and selling tapes from small mom-and-pop shops who were making their own blank cassettes. Eventually, they couldn’t supply enough cassettes to meet their demand, so they bought their first high speed automated audio cassette loader in 1980. “We thought that’ll do it. We’ll never need another one. That’s as many cassettes as anybody will ever use,” Stepp says. “And the following year, we bought two more. Then it was four more and within about five years we had 16 of those machines running.” Stepp says around 30 are operating on the floor today, with 50 or 60 more kept in reserve for extra production capacity and spare parts.
By the mid-90s, with the arrival and eventual dominance of the CD, those cassette loaders slowed down a bit, but not entirely. At the time, Stepp says the NAC wasn’t working exclusively in music. Instead, he says they were doing “a lot of (James) Patterson and (David) Baldacci thrillers and things like that.” They also worked with the National Library Service for many years making books and magazines for the blind and visually handicapped, as well as instructional and religious material, including the Bible on tape. They themselves put a few CD duplicating machines into production, but Stepp had an intuition that cassettes weren’t going to go away entirely. “We knew the CD was a miraculous new product and many people liked it, but there were more audio cassette decks than there were people in the United States, and so we knew this thing wasn’t over. We got in the market with CDs for a while and duplicated those, but we knew the audio cassette had some staying power and we thought it would come back.”
In the early 2000s, Stepp and his chief technician Bill Coverston traveled around the country with a semi-trailer, trying to buy as much cassette making equipment that they could. Oftentimes they returned home from these rescue missions with far more equipment and raw material than they had actually paid for. “We were offered a tremendous amount of just wonderful, wonderful equipment, the best that the industry has ever built at ridiculous prices. We were basically buying the equipment from them and if we hadn’t bought it, it was going to go to landfills or to be sold for metal scrap. That unfortunately happened to way too many vinyl presses in the 1970s and we didn’t want to see that happen to the tape equipment as well,” Stepp says.
The decision to double down on that aging equipment paid off in 2009 when Pearl Jam re-released their debut album Ten. As part of that release, they had ordered 15,000 cassettes from NAC. Stepp says they sold out during the pre-sale and they promptly reordered thousands more. A similar project by the Smashing Pumpkins also sold thousands of cassettes, announcing to many of the major labels that had sold their equipment to the NAC just a few years before that cassettes were around to stay.
Throughout the decades, NAC has supplied cassette tape from various companies around the world. With each passing year, each one decided to get out of tape production business. In late 2016, the South Korean-based company, Saehan, that the NAC had been purchasing their tape from informed them that they were ending their tape production at the end of the year. They offered NAC the remainder of their inventory, some 300,000 reels which Stepp bought in order to give them a little time to make a tough decision. “My son and I sat down together and we said we’ve got to either get out of business within three years or we’ve got to be making tape within three years. So being sort of the stubborn sort, we decided to make tape,” Stepp says. “If we hadn’t done it then it could have never been done. The equipment would have been gone and we could not have afforded to ever have it built again.”
Stepp estimates that tape hadn’t been made in the United States since 1984 at the latest, so they had to scour the country for a machine able to be reconditioned back into making tape. What they found somewhere out in Nevada was a 62-foot long, 20-ton tape-coating line originally built in the 1980s that had most recently been converted into a machine for making credit card strips. They had to haul it in “across the Great Plains during a blizzard” Stepp says, and then take it apart in pieces to move it up their antiquated freight elevators, breaking one in the process. The restoration and reconditioning process took over a year-and-a-half to undergo, mostly done by people Stepp enlisted from around the country who had retired from the industry decades ago. Before our interview, Stepp was on the phone with a retired magnetic engineer trying to answer that day’s question about the tape-making process.
“It was just the kindness, and there was also the fact that these guys had devoted their lives to this industry and they didn’t want to see it just dry up and go away. And there was an emotional attachment, ‘if I can help save this I will.’ And that was a big part of it was in most cases. They had no personal gain,” Stepp says. “It’s a miracle that we’re here. The fact that some of these people are still around and can give us their personal advice has just been invaluable. We rely a lot on the remaining knowledge of what I would call the old hands, you know, the old masters of making tape. Had we waited five more years, many of the people who were able to give us their advice would have been gone and a few of them are still around.”
The machine can now produce around 20,000 feet of tape per minute amidst a tightly controlled temperature and humidity environment, hence that weather station on the top of the building. While much of this tape will fill cassettes ordered by the major labels for well-known music and television projects, some it will wind up filled with music from independent artists who order as little as 50 cassettes from NAC. Those are the ones Stepp still feels a special indebtedness to. “I tell them every time I talk to them on the phone, thank you. You guys were the lifeblood of this industry. When it didn’t look like it had much blood left, it did,” Stepp says. “In the end, the big guys jumped back in and said we should have never left it.”
When Stepp talks about small independent labels, he is referencing music collectives like Tiny House Tapes, a cassette label based between Chicago and Milwaukee. The label began in January of 2021 when a pair of pandemic sequestered friends decided to start making and releasing cassettes. “When we started, we really wanted to do something, and I can’t think of another word other than handmade,” Dillon Pfau says. “Getting the J-cards printed ourselves, kind of sourcing all the materials and really trying to make it as DIY as possible. Also trying to make it as cheap as possible, mainly for the bands that we work with.”
In the last two years, the label has been able to release eight cassettes from artists in both the U.S. and Canada. They have also released a pair of compilation albums of artists both on the Tiny House label and beyond. Those compilation albums were released through Bandcamp, with all proceeds being donated to The Trevor Project, a non-profit focused on suicide prevention amongst LGBTQ+ youth.
“It’s definitely a passion project, not a business by any means. We both have full time jobs and are not really in this to make money,” Jonah Minnihan says, who works as a manager at a bike shop in Milwaukee by day. “The way we work is we try to work with really small independent artists. We have the artists pay for all the blank cassettes and all the materials and we actually do all the work for free. So we donate all of our time to put all this stuff together, to dub it all, fit all the J-cards so that the artists that we’re working with have a cheap and accessible physical format to sell at shows and give out to people or do whatever they want with.”
While the pair hold some cassette nostalgia from experiencing their parents’ cassettes or navigating a tape deck in their first car, they chose to start the cassette-only label for the same reasons most tape labels get started: for the format’s cost efficiency, and its remarkably untouched utility.
“I think that (nostalgia) is definitely there, but I think beyond that kind of similar to the vinyl resurgence, there’s almost like a different utility beyond nostalgia I think a lot of people maybe in mainstream culture kind of miss. For vinyl people, there’s a lot of like audiophiles that are like ‘This is the best sounding way of listening to music.’ I think similarly with cassettes, the utility is maybe a bit different than fidelity. It’s more about the culture around it,” Pfau says. “People have been dubbing cassettes long after it’s been dead. Now you can kind of find them at Urban Outfitters and stuff. I think there’s a lot to be said about just the resiliency of that kind of underground culture that I’ve always really appreciated, and I think being a part of that has been really cool too.”
Minnihan mentions a big dream of one day hosting a Tiny House Tapes concert featuring all of the artists that the pair have worked with so far. That’s exactly the kind of thing possible, the gathering of performers and listeners across place and musical genre, all linked first and foremost through a beautiful and cheap plastic cassette.
There is currently a tremendous appetite from artists and consumers for new material to be released on old mediums. “Every day we have people coming to us now and saying ‘Can you make VHS tape?’ ‘Can you make floppy disks?’ ‘Can you make this or that?’ And the truth is, the answer to that is yes,” Stepp says. He says their tape-making machine could be reconditioned to make practically any of these older formats, if given the right demand and the time with which to do it. This collective nostalgia for cassette tapes and other earlier mediums feels warranted in response to a future that looks to be filled with continuing societal injustice, extremist political violence, and natural disaster. If nothing else, the cassette tape might be the last truly safe refuge from insatiable and increasingly pervasive advertisers and exploitative streaming platforms.
As for the National Audio Company, Steve Stepp promises that NAC will be around until the very last cassette is made. At the start of every tour that he does, he says that “if you’re an analog person, you have just arrived at Valhalla as the Vikings say.”
And at the conclusion of the tour, he tells people: “Get a good look. You will never see this again.”
“I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” he says. “You will never see this again.”
Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River, and has never strayed far from it.
Sara Williams is an artist currently living in Iowa. She spends all of her free time happily distracted by the state’s waterways, timbers, farms and fields. To see more of her artwork, visit http://tenacioustimbers.com/.
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