Cassettes still a multi-million dollar industry… in prison

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Cassette tapes may be dead. There may be no nostalgists who lyrically pine for the days of tape, no audiophiles who swear by the purity of the format. But tape still has its place in the world. There are perks to the obsolescent format.

For one thing, unlike CDs, the money in cassette tapes is not plummeting because of audio downloads. According to Bob Paris, owner of North Hollywood’s Pack Central, a mail-order business exclusively dedicated to selling cassette tapes: . “[Five years ago], people thought I was nuts when I invested tons of money in analog prerecorded music on tape.” Now? Paris’ business steadily brings in a million dollars a year.

But who is buying Paris’ cassettes? America’s 2.3 million prisoners. Which brings us to the second advantage of tape over compact disc: a tape can’t be broken apart and used as a shiv. Prisoners are allowed to have them. 60% of Paris’ business is in cassette tapes.

Paris’ excited conclusion: “[By selling cassette tapes] I have dodged every conventional bullet that has hit most music retailers,” Paris says. “I don’t have to worry about downloading, legal or illegally. The beauty of it is that prisoners don’t have Internet access and never will.”

I hope the “never will” part isn’t true, but the full piece over at The New York Times shows how even a dead format in a dying industry can make a millionaire out of a canny businessman. It also includes a list of Paris’ perennial best sellers: Michael Jackson’s Thriller and a “best of” compilation by The Stylistics make the grade. A fantastic read.

Music Retailer Thrives Serving Captive Audience [NY Times]

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28 Responses to Cassettes still a multi-million dollar industry… in prison

  1. ernie says:

    Oh that wacky industrial prison complex and its delicious profit opportunities!!

    They just just liquefy people sentenced over 10 years and use the drippings for fertilizer – AT A TIDY MARKUP I MIGHT ADD!

  2. mgfarrelly says:

    My cousin was in prison for 18 months (multiple DUIs, guilty as sin) and the family regularly corresponded by cassette with him.

    The phone companies tack all kind of fun “service charges” and “connection fees” on calls from prisoners. My cousin drained his calling cards really quick. Cassettes were a cheap alternative.

    As for prisoners and internet access, I took a course on prison libraries and other “alternative institutions” in Library school and can tell you that’s a really contentious debate.

    On the one hand you have prisoners who are trying to communicate with family, learn over distance and use the net for completely legit purposes. On the other you have cretins who use it to e-mail victims, harass people and generally be…well…criminals.

    Some prisons allow extremely controlled access to the net, some even going as far has having a live monitor parallel surfing with the inmate. But that costs money, and when it comes to jails all most people want money spent on is more guards and more bars.

  3. Mikey Likes BoingBoing says:

    Hey, tip of the fedora to Bob Paris. He has every right to be excited over a niche market that is largely his own, to the tune of a cool million a MONTH (OMG I thought that was per year!)

  4. remmelt says:

    Headphone amp? Would that work for amplification?

  5. royaltrux says:

    from the article: “Given the harsh business climate for music retailers, Paris is thrilled that his business has been flat for the last five years, with sales hitting more than $1 million annually.” – it is annually, not monthly.

  6. teamshadowboat says:

    “the second advantage of tape over compact disc: a tape can’t be broken apart and used as a shiv”

    I bet you I could make a shiv out of a cassette. And I’m not even in prison … well … no, DC’s bad but not that bad.

  7. John Brownlee says:

    Royal, how weird. A million’s nothing to sneeze at, but I did a double take when I read the per month figure. I wonder if they changed it.

  8. royaltrux says:

    Dunno, but a million dollars worth of cassettes is a lot to “de-screw” in a month!

  9. mrfantasy says:

    Seems like you could easily strangle someone with a few lengths of cassette tape folded together. Then again, IANAP.

  10. mdhatter says:

    I’m not sure the last time I used either of them, but I still have a cassette deck and a record player in my ‘hi-fi’ setup.

    As for prisoners and the internet – no. No I don’t think they should have internet access – now or ever. Sure, teach them how to use computers (rehabilitation and all that) but don’t let the prisoners online. No superhighway for them.

  11. michaelportent says:

    @Rob O.

    Have to agree. I’m still an analog purist to an extent. Although I don’t get annoyed by the surface noise of the turntables.

    Many of my favorite records were dubbed to 4 track tapes.

  12. trjames says:

    I know that in Saharan Africa, tapes are still pretty popular. The music stores in Sudan have pretty much only cassette tapes, CDs just don’t do well with the dust, and the bumpy roads make it impossible to play them in cars. The tapes keep on going though.

  13. danbanana says:

    “Cassette tapes may be dead. There may be no nostalgists who lyrically pine for the days of tape, no audiophiles who swear by the purity of the format. But tape still has its place in the world.”

    although i’ve pretty much fully adopted MP3s in the past two years, i’ll own a cassette player ’til the day i die. hell, i’ve got a cassette tattoo. i’m firmly of the opinion that mix cds (especially when distributed to friends/girls) are a crappy way to pass on music-of-possible-interest. the format makes it too easy to skip and takes away the opportunity of a permanant track listing (very important to a mix tape).

    i never owned a portable cd player, so until i finally forked out for a little sony NWE507 a few years ago, i was carrying an old walkman to the gym, on planes, etc. seriously, there’s nothing like a good mix tape.

  14. Chevan says:

    “Headphone amp? Would that work for amplification?”

    It depends on the type of amp you make/buy. Some just provide power if your headphones require a lot of power to move (upper level studio/audiophile headphones), but some offer volume gain.

  15. Not a Doktor says:

    I still deal with tapes, my car is 14 years old and the ipod isn’t always charged*. Another thing is I work with kids, and for some reason they will always find a way to destroy the CD player on a stereo.

    Also you can just record over the tape and not have a bunch of cds cluttering; and also when the sound quality goes bad.

    *my generic adapter (that I randomly found in a sofa) is starting to crap out, it stops and the car tries to turn it over, then it goes back. Anybody have any recommendations for a new one (that’s maybe hi-fi? and plugs into the dock of the ipod, not the audio jack)

  16. historyman68 says:

    The headline creates the wonderful possibility of adding “… in prison” to any BBg headline.

    Woz, Empire, and a tale of early Apple copyright violation… in prison!

    Boom Computing… in prison!

    Scoop Clip scoops from, clips on bags… in prison!

    Two things I learned from the New York Times this morning… in prison!

    Doc sofa bed converts into a bunk bed within seconds… in prison!

    Plex gets even sexier, merges with CenterStage… in prison!

  17. neurolux says:

    If I were sentenced to prison for years without internet access I would probably hang myself with cassette tape.

  18. Wingo says:

    I think more and more indie artists will soon start recording stuff onto cassettes to be ‘retro-hip’, or something like that. I see it as a backlash to the whole ‘illegal downloading’ fiasco and digital media in general.

    Take, for instance, Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie:

    http://stereogum.com/archives/mp3/new-chris-walla-demo-genevieve-me_009918.html

    Also, for an interesting semi-approximation of the old mixtape phenomenon for the digital age, see:

    muxtape.com

    Interesting note: I’m a musician, and usually keep up fairly well with technology. I just found an old demo tape of mine on cassette, and it was made in 1998. Meaning it’s only been ten years since that was really the only option for decent home recording…

  19. strider_mt2k says:

    I hope the “never will” isn’t true either, but I think the statement was made in context to the topic you were discussing, which is unlawful music distribution and not human rights.

    Steady man, steady.

  20. dculberson says:

    Ugh, cassette tape sounds like crap. That “warm” analog sound? Distortion and signal loss. Don’t pretend like it’s a quality medium – just admit that it distorts the sound in a way you like.

    Cassettes just don’t have the bandwidth to hold a quality audio recording. Reel to reel is a different matter, at least 7.5 ips and faster.

  21. WaveyDave says:

    Long live tape and vinyl I say. I don’t know why but they feel so much more tactile than CDs and DVDs.
    I still use cassettes and my kids have loads of childrens story tapes and videos of classic kids tv. Your average video is a lot easier to use than your average DvD – no menus so the kids found it a lot easier to figure out how to put on a video unassisted ! As so few people in the UK use tape these days you can get loads of really good music, tv and story tapes very cheap at charity shops, garage sales and the like. I’m not going to get into discussions about quality. For me its all about content. I have some music that has never been released on cd/online so my tapes are my only way of hearing them. Plus there’s always the serendipity of finding an old John Peel show recorded off Radio1 back when I was an earnest young indie music fan.

  22. FutureNerd says:

    There’s still no replacement for the $20 (still) cassette recorder. Those voice recorders aren’t quite it.

    The Zoom H2 is a nice replacement for a hi-fi cassette deck, but with quad mics, higher fi, lighter than a cassette walkman, 12 hours on an SD… for $200 though.

    Soon prisoners will be exchanging SD cards with family.

    #3 Rob O. “You have to amplify an analog signal to make it audible, which makes it sound full-bodied, good and warm.” It turns out digital players have amplifiers too, but they put a volume limiter in them. If you hack into the circuitry and insert an analog volume knob, you can turn it up loud and hear that old warm sound again. There’s a project on instructibles about it.

  23. Anonymous says:

    CDs have always sucked the bag.

    Yes, hipsters are manufacturing tapes in a retro style:

    http://www.bohemian.com/citysound/?p=1411

    And people still enjoy making homemade tapes:

    http://www.bohemian.com/bohemian/12.17.08/music-cassetes-0851.html

  24. MarlboroTestMonkey7 says:

    Maybe they could get some sort of intranet… a secure and closed net.
    About “never will”, beware of karma.

  25. Rob O. says:

    “no audiophiles who swear by the purity of the format”

    Actually, if you want to get technical about it, in my opinion tapes sound a hell of a lot better than CDs and most other digital audio, short of very high bit-rate and FLAC type files. If you get a good quality cassette that hasn’t been damaged from wear or the elements and a good stereo with noise reduction, you can get an amazing vinyl quality sound without any nagging surface noise.

    IMHO, tapes have what digital audio has completely passed by: amplification. You have to amplify an analog signal to make it audible, which makes it sound full-bodied, good and warm. Remember how they always warned you not to play your walkman too loud? They don’t say that with iPods.

    That being said, more than five bucks for any cassette is a ripoff. Thirty minutes in the sun can make your favorite band sound like they’re playing in your bathtub, UNDER the water.

  26. markfrei says:

    And they still allow CDs in airports?

  27. Beamish says:

    MARK! SHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! You’re gonna roooon it!

  28. Rob O. says:

    @22:

    I don’t disagree in some respects, and I think the subtle background hiss that’s present in cassettes adds an interesting quality to the recording.

    However, the quality of the sound has a lot of variables. I would reckon that, between the manufacturing quality of the tape, the ease that cassettes can be damaged by wear and the elements, and the wear that most vintage cassettes have, there aren’t a lot of cassettes offering the full potential of sound quality. Believe me, I would love to get my hands on a reel-to-reel setup.

    However, the idea that CDs and most mp3s offer a sound quality universally more preferable to analog media is just not true. CDs can still be a bit tinny, and digital files transmitted or copied via the internet can still be distorted somewhat.

    @23

    Interesting. I think the difference is that all analog media use more amplification, as well as more power–I could only get 3 or so hours for two AA batteries in my walkman, versus 40+ hours in the last CD player I bought. Most consumer digital media players don’t use so much current or amplification, so they tend towards thinner sound. Adding amplification to digital media and really throwing some current behind it does make it sound a lot better.

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