Cassette culture

Cassette culture refers to the trading of home-made audio cassettes, usually of rock or alternative music. The culture was in part an offshoot of the mail art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, it owed a lot to the DIY ethic of punk. In the UK cassette culture was at its peak in what is known as the post-punk period, 1978–1984; in the US, activity extended through the late 80s and into the 90s. It was largely postal-based (though there were a few retail outlets, such as Rough Trade in the UK) with the artists selling or more likely exchanging music on compact audio cassettes via a loose network of other artists and fanzine readers.

Several factors made the "cassette" boom occur: obviously the recording format of the cassette tape was important. However, it was the fact that bands did not need to go into expensive recording studios any longer. Multi-track recording equipment was becoming affordable, portable and of fairly high quality during the early 1980s. One could purchase a "four track" cassette recorder and get a reasonable sound at home. Therefore, due to inexpensive (or less expensive) recording and the ease of duplicating tape there was 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. 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.

United Kingdom

In the UK Cassette Culture was championed by marginal musicians and performers such as Storm Bugs, the insane picnic, Instant Automatons, Stripey Zebras, What is Oil?, The APF Brigade, Blyth Power, The Peace & Freedom Band, Academy 23, Cleaners From Venus, Chumbawamba, 5ive Ximes of Dust 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, Falling A Records, Datenverarbeitung (in Germany), Deleted Records, Fuck Off Records, ISC Compilation Tapes, New Crimes Tapes, Rasquap Products, Sterile 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', utilising new home tape copying technologies (see below) whilst others were more organised, functioning in a similar way to more established record labels. Some also did vinyl releases, or later developed into vinyl labels. Many compilation albums were released, presenting samples of work from various artists. It was not uncommon for artists who had a vinyl contract to release on cassette compilations, or to continue to do cassette-only album releases (of live recordings, work-in-progress material, etc.) after they had started releasing records.

Cassette culture received something of a mainstream boost when acknowledged by the major music press. Both the New Musical Express (NME) and Sounds, the main weekly music papers of the time in the UK, launched their own 'cassette culture' features, in which new releases would be briefly reviewed and ordering information given. In the U.S. magazines such as Op Magazine, Factsheet Five and Unsound rose to fill the void.

United States

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 publicise it in the network of fanzines and newsletters that existed around this scene. Therefore cassette culture was an ideal and very democratic method for making available music that was never likely to have mainstream appeal. Arguably, such freedom led to a large output of poor quality and self-indulgent material in the name of 'artistic creativity'. On the other hand, many found in cassette-culture music that was more imaginative, challenging, beautiful, and ground breaking, than output released on vinyl.

In the United States, Cassette Culture was associated with DIY sound collage and punk music and blossomed across the country on cassette labels like Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine, Swinging Axe, E.F. Tapes, Happiest Tapes on Earth and Sound of Pig (which released over 300 titles), Portland's labels From the Wheelchair to the Pulpit and Eurock and in Olympia, Washington on labels like K Records and brown interiour music. Artists such as Zan Hoffman, Minoy, The Haters, Dino DiMuro, Don Campau, Ken Clinger, Cock ESP, Ordinary Boys, Ray Carmen, 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 United States 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 New Jersey and continues to make many releases in the cassette-only format.

Creative packaging

The packaging of cassette releases, whilst often 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 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 (UK) "Extraction 2" was packaged with an X-ray of a broken limb in 1995.

21st century

Though, 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, in recent years it has once again seen a revival, with the rise of tape labels like American Tapes, Obsolete Audio Formats, Heresee, From the Wheelchair to the Pulpit, Object Tapes, Brown Interiour Music, Fuck It Tapes!, Lost Sound Tapes. Some perceive this as a direct result of the questionable quality and the "anybody can do it" nature of CD-rs. The arrival of this technology may have given everybody the ability to put out a CD-r but in the mind of the underground music collector, this very thing cheapens the CD-r's perceived value. The very easy, but sometimes unwanted transfer of music from CDs and CD-rs to a file sharing network may also be some of the motivation behind a movement back to cassette, although nostalgia for the past is probably a more likely explanation.

An exhibition was held at Printed Matter in New York City devoted to current American cassette culture entitled "Leaderless: Underground Cassette Culture Now" (May 12th -26th 2007)


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