Meet The Owner Of America's Last Awesome Cassette Tape Factory
Originally published on Slant.
Every day that Steve Stepp shows up to his office at National Audio Company in Springfield, Missouri is different. There are always new challenges: a piece of equipment has broken down, an order might be overwhelming his employees, or a new label has submitted a unique request. It's a non-stop, on-your-toes, keep-on-grinding atmosphere that would drive many people crazy. But not Steve Stepp. In fact, Stepp wouldn't have it any other way.
"We do something that people all over the world have said, 'That can’t be done anymore.' And we do it," said Stepp. "We not only do it better, and do it on a larger scale, but we can be proud of what we’ve done."
As more jobs are shipped overseas every year on the cheap, Stepp's company is one of the last bastions of prosperous American manufacturing, an industry that once propelled the country to its current economic superpower status. And he's doing it with a product that many people might think has been dead and gone for decades: the audiocassette.
Compact Discs are relics. Digital downloads and mp3s continue to lose market share to streaming. In an age where artists' entire catalogues are accessible with a few taps of a thumb, how could an audiocassette company still not only be in business, but thriving?
Steve Stepp was a college student when he first started National Audio Company in 1969. His father had just sold a business that provided background music to stores, restaurants, and offices on continuous loop tape cartridges.
Stepp had worked in the business duplicating tapes in the company's tape duplication lab. Realizing that the radio industry was beginning to automate, Stepp saw an opportunity.
National Audio Company built up a good reputation in the early years for manufacturing and selling analog tape worldwide. In the 1980, Stepp was approached by an sales representative from the Amtex Corporation showing off the "product of the future." This was the first time Stepp had ever seen an audiocassette.
"With my usual keen foresight, I said, 'I don’t think that will ever be accepted,'" said Stepp. "'It looks like something you would put in a doll to make it have a voice.'"
Of course, Stepp was wrong. Tapes began selling so well that Amtex couldn't keep up with production, forcing National Audio Company to invest in it's own cassette manufacturing equipment. After 3 months, they bought their second machine. Within two years, they had 16 cassette loaders. Today, they have over 65.
In the early days of National Audio, most of Stepp's business was manufacturing and selling blank tapes. Record labels started calling, and NAC got into the mass duplication business.
But as the '90s rolled along, and cassettes were replaced by compact discs as the new format of choice, Stepp was forced to adapt.
"We often say that our success is due to stubbornness and stupidity," said Stepp. "Stubbornness, in that we are determined to make this work. We were also stupid. We didn’t realize that the audiocassette was dead and gone. That seemed to be conventional wisdom. We never bought it."
Stepp attributes the survival of National Audio Company during the cassette's dark days to several factors. For one, many of NAC's competitors jumped ship on the cassette and rushed into the "dogfight" of compact discs. The result was that many companies took on massive debt, and in the process, crashed and burned.
Since its founding in 1969, National Audio Company has maintained a strict policy of never taking on any debt.
"Between economic upturns and downturns, we’re not hurt like a lot of people might be who’ve got all their equipment in on borrowed money, all their inventory and raw materials on borrowed money," said Stepp. "Then you see a downturn and sales slump for six months and you’re in real trouble."
NAC began to buy up a lot of the failing companies' equipment and inventories, which only led to a stronger market position. Meanwhile, as consumers stopped buying major releases on tape, NAC continued to have successful returns in their blank cassette business.
Then, about 5 years ago, Stepp began to see the dawning what he calls "the retro revolution" — indie labels and indie bands increasingly releasing their music on cassette.
The format never really went away in the DIY community, where punk and noise bands were relying on the cheap and fast production of a cassette to sell at shows and in small record shops.
Slowly but surely, cassettes started making their way back into record stores and mainstream acts, like Metallica, began limited runs of cassettes. Last year, NAC oversaw the mass production of the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack on cassette.
In the film, the protagonist — Starlord — is obsessed with a mix tape on cassette from childhood, and rocks out on his cassette player in the opening scene.
While Stepp reports that National Audio Company is having its most successful year yet, there are still plenty of challenges that the manufacturer will face in the coming years.
For one, it remains to be seen whether we're at the beginning of a cassette renaissance, or in the midst of a flash-in-the-pan fad. While vinyl and cassettes are growing formats in the music industry, cassettes are far from dominant. In fact, the last cassette to sell over 50,000 copies was The Wiggles' Yummy Yummy in 2004.
And while many of its competitors are long gone, National Audio Company must contend with its own obsolescence. The more businesses with raw materials that NAC needs for its manufacturing output that go out of business, the more difficult it is for NAC to make everything it wants to make.
The only solution, Stepp posits, is self-reliability. As outside suppliers have begun to dwindle, NAC has expanded from merely assembling, loading, and selling cassettes, to etching, engraving, and coding, as well as manufacturing its own high-quality analog tape.
As Stepp puts it,
"You can’t say, 'Well we don’t do that, so we can’t do that.' It’s been, 'We don’t do that, so how do we do that?'"
NAC is also relying on the next generation to perpetuate its success. Its engineers are training the younger workforce to operate and fix its "orphans." These orphans are machines that not only are no longer are made, but the companies that used to make them are out of business.
Passing along the skills of experienced engineers, as well as finding new ways to marry the antiquated technology of cassette production with optimized modern technology, is the only way to remain viable.
While Steve Stepp has been in business for nearly 50 years, he doesn't see an end on the horizon.
"My wife has told me she won’t ever let me retire. She doesn’t want me around the house. And I don’t really see a rocking chair as being my goal in the future, okay?"
You can support companies like NAC by going to your local record store on October 17th for International Cassette Day. The one-day celebration of audiocassettes will feature exclusive releases from bands like Green Day, Motorhead, Foals, The Gaslight Anthem, and more.
Cover photo: Creative Commons