Looking for the cassette section at your local music store? Good luck. Pre-recorded cassettes are going the way of the eight-track tape, despite efforts by record industry executives to save the format.

In the past six months, sales of music on cassette have dropped 26.5 percent compared to the same period last year.

The trend isn't a new one; music cassette sales have experienced double-digit declines every year since 1991, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, an industry trade group representing record manufacturers.

Overall shipments of audio cassettes for 1996 were 297 million units nationwide, almost half the peak year of 1990, when the tape format saw sales of 530 million units.

The most obvious reason for the downslide is the emergence of the compact disc. CDs are thought to have better sound quality than magnetic tape and last longer.

Still, cassettes are not expected to disappear any time soon. That's the problem.

"You don't have a comparable (format) coming in to replace it," said Steve Cesinger, an analyst at Greif & Co. "You also have millions of cassette players that people are going to keep using."

David Davis, an analyst at Houlihan, Lokey Howard & Zukin, says one reason for the decline is that the recording industry and retailers have been fervently marketing CDs to music consumers and ignoring the cassette-buying population.

What they didn't count on, Davis said, is that people would leave the store without buying anything.

According to a national telephone survey conducted this spring by SoundScan, a recording industry tracking service, 68 percent of the record buyers surveyed who couldn't find a cassette they were looking for left the store without purchasing anything.

That might help explain an overall slump in the music business; in the first six months of this year, compact disc sales were 2.3 percent below the same period in 1996, according to the RIAA.

"There was a move toward influencing consumers to buy CDs instead of cassettes. A rather large part of the population didn't want to pay more for CDs," said Davis. "The industry kind of priced out a large core of the market."

The move was made to boost profitability for record labels and manufacturers. Although the CD is priced more than a music cassette (a CD retails for an average of $15.98 while a full-price cassette sells for an average $11.98), compact discs actually cost less than cassettes to manufacture.

Still, cassettes represent a sizable market in the recording industry $2 billion of the industry's $12 billion in sales last year and record manufacturers and music labels have begun stepping up efforts to ward off the decline.

Last May, a number of music companies and manufacturers launched an ad campaign with the slogan "Hey ... Where'd You Hide The Cassettes?"

The 16-week marketing effort was featured in trade publications in hopes of convincing retailers to start carrying more cassettes and making them more visible.

Since the campaign kicked off, BMG Entertainment North America's cassette sales have improved, according to Louis Vaccarelli, International Recording Media Association chairman and vice president for manufacturing and production at BMG.

Going a step further, music distributor BMG, which owns record labels Arista Records and RCA Records, recently began lowering prices of some cassettes offered to mail-order subscribers, from $9.98 to $7.98.

Sony Corp. stepped up to the plate by marketing its upcoming album for pop singer Mariah Carey as a packaged set. Consumers will have the option of buying both a compact disc and an audio cassette for $24.98, although they will be free to buy individual tapes or CDs of the album.

"It's a matter of getting the cassette out there for people to see, and having someone out there buying it who wouldn't normally be buying a CD," said Vaccarelli.

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