Cassette Culture

Soundwave

Cassette culture refers to the practices surrounding amateur production and distribution of recorded music that emerged in the late 1970s via home-made audio cassettes. It is characterized by the adoption of home-recording by independent artists, and involvement in ad-hoc self-distribution and promotion networks – primarily conducted through mail (though there were a few retail outlets, such as Rough Trade and Falling A in the UK) and fanzines.

The culture was in part an offshoot of the mail art movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and participants engaged in tape trading in addition to traditional sales. The culture is related to the DIY ethic of punk, and encouraged musical eclecticism and diversity.

The improvement of tape formulations and availability of sophisticated cassette decks in the late 1970s allowed participants produce high-quality copies of their music inexpensively. Multi-track recording equipment became affordable, portable, and of fairly high quality during the early 1980s. As well, electronic instruments, such as drum machines and synthesizers, became more compact and inexpensive. Therefore, it became increasingly feasible to construct home-recording studios, giving rise to an increase of recording artists. Add to this the fact that college radio was coming into its own. For many years there were non-commercial college radio stations but now they had a new found freedom in format – giving rise to regular cassette-only radio shows that showcased and promoted the work of home recording artists. With the influx of new music from sources other than the major record companies—and the quasi-major medium of college radio to lend support—the audio boom was on.

In the UK cassette culture was at its peak in what is known as the post-punk period, 1978-1984. UK cassette culture was championed by marginal musicians and performers such as Barry Lamb, Storm Bugs, the insane picnic, Chumbawamba, and many of the purveyors of Industrial music, e.g. Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Clock DVA . Artists self-releasing would often copy their music in exchange for ‘a blank tape plus self-addressed envelope.’ But there also existed many small ‘tape labels’ such as Snatch Tapes, Deleted Records, and Third Mind Records that operated in opposition to the capitalistic aim of maximizing profit. There was great diversity amongst such labels, some were entirely ‘bedroom based,’ utilizing new home tape copying technologies, whilst others were more organized, functioning in a similar way to more established record labels.

In the US, cassette culture activity extended through the late ’80s and into the ’90s. Although larger operators made use of commercial copying services, anybody who had access to copying equipment (such as the portable tape to tape cassette players that first became common around the early 1980s) could release a tape, and publicize it in the network of fanzines and newsletters that existed around the scene. Therefore cassette culture was an ideal and very democratic method for making available music that was never likely to have mainstream appeal. Many found in cassette-culture music that was more imaginative, challenging, beautiful, and groundbreaking than output released on vinyl.

In the United States, Cassette Culture was associated with DIY sound collage, riot grrrl, and punk music and blossomed across the country on cassette labels like Ladd-Frith Psyclones, Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine, and Swinging Axe. Artists such as PBK, Big City Orchestra, Alien Planetscapes, and hundreds of others recorded numerous albums available only on cassette throughout the late ’80s and well into the ’90s. A notable pioneer of cassette culture and ‘outsider’ music in the US is R. Stevie Moore, who, through the ‘R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club’, has been releasing DIY, home-recorded music steadily since the 1970s. Moore lives in Nashville and continues to make many releases in the cassette-only format.

The Grateful Dead allowed their fans to record their shows. For many years the tapers set up their microphones wherever they could. The eventual forest of microphones became a problem for the official sound crew. Eventually this was solved by having a dedicated taping section located behind the soundboard, which required a special ‘tapers’ ticket. The band allowed sharing of tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made. Sometimes the sound crew would allow the tapers to connect directly to the soundboard, which created exceptional concert recordings. Taping and trading became a Grateful Dead sub-culture.

The packaging of cassette releases, though sometimes amateurish, was also an aspect of the format in which a high degree of creativity and originality could be found. For the most part packaging relied on traditional plastic shells with a photocopied ‘J-card’ insert, but some labels made more of an effort. The Chocolate Monk-released album ‘Anusol’ by the A Band, for instance, came packaged with a ‘suppository’ unique to each copy – one of which was a used condom wrapped in tissue. BWCD released a cassette by Japanese noise artist Aube that came tied to a blue plastic ashtray shaped like a fish. EEtapes of Belgium release of This Window’s ‘Extraction 2’ was packaged with an X-ray of a broken limb in 1995. The Barry Douglas Lamb album ‘Ludi Funebres’ had the cassette box buried in some earth contained in a larger outer tin and covered in leaves.

In the mid-’90s cassette culture seemed to decline with the appearance of new technologies and methods of distribution such as the Internet, MP3 files, file sharing, and CD-Rs, but in recent years it has seen a revival.

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