Photographer: Signe Pierce for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Old-School Mixtape Is Back

The humble cassette retakes its rightful place in the music lover’s boom box.

The 2014 blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy opens in the year 1988 on planet earth with a small boy listening to a mixtape cassette on a Walkman. Cut to the next scene, “26 years later” on an “abandoned planet”: The boy has grown up to be Chris Pratt, still listening to the same old mixtape. It’s basically a sight gag—an intergalactic scavenger with a Walkman? Absurd! Except, suddenly, the cassette seems to be back.

Alongside the decade-long resurgence of vinyl records, music sales on cassette increased 74 percent in 2016, from just 74,000 in 2015 to 129,000 last year, according to Nielsen’s yearend music report, after the industry all but stopped releasing tapes in about 2000. Most of these sales are familiar chart-topping albums by Justin Bieber and The Weeknd; but as the ranks of tape listeners swell, they’re beginning to return to the beloved mixtape as well.

Eric Isaacson has seen the trend blossom as the owner of Mississippi Records, a defiantly independent record store and label in Portland, Ore. Around 2005, he says, “all these kids in the neighborhood started bringing in their own mixtapes,” asking if he would sell them. Once sales started to take off, his employees convinced him that Mississippi should record and sell its own compilations on cassette.

Isaacson has created more than 115 mixtapes from Mississippi’s vast trove of obscure vinyl singles, which he told the Washington Post in January he also occasionally uses to press new records, tracking down the descendants of artists who’ve died to make sure they share in the proceeds. Many of his mixtapes are themed by musical genre (Volume 45—Samba de Morro) or by the emotions or situations that inspired them (Volume 7—Trust Your Child: Difficult Children’s Music). Runs of 200 copies typically sell out within a week: At $3 apiece, they’re priced just slightly above what they cost to make.

While the appeal of mixtapes for buyers is partly financial—“the tape consumer is really poor,” Isaacson says—they’re also cool in a way that a Spotify playlist or downloaded mix will never be. “It’s the rawest, most junky product you can imagine,” he says. For others, some of the thrill may be in tempting fate: The commercial sale of unlicensed music can expose you to damages up to $150,000 per work used, says George Washington University law professor Roger Schechter, who specializes in intellectual property.

Not to be left out, Urban Outfitters Inc. has aggressively cultivated the reemerging market, selling cassettes and players and creating limited-edition mixtapes featuring new music by the likes of Nadastrom, Larry Gus, and Childish Major, which it gives away to customers under promotional agreements with the artists. (If you’ve never heard of them, that’s the point.) It also stocks Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.

“Nostalgia and music are both key brand pillars for Urban Outfitters,” says Stacey Britt Fitzgerald, the company’s director for global marketing, so “mixtapes are a natural fit for us.” Lucky for them: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes out in May.

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