Record-It-Yourself Music on Cassette


R. Stevie Moore, the generally acknowledged father of the home-recording underground, in the studio of his home in Montclair, N.J. He distributes his tape cassettes through the mail. (Photo by Edward Hausner)

Recorded music is thriving outside the music business.
A new underground of musicians is composing, performing and releasing its music on cassettes, trading and selling them in a loose network that extends across North America and from Australia to Yugoslavia. The artistic freedom, low cost, privacy and spontaneity of cassette recording have encouraged thousands of performers to bypass the music business and do it themselves.
Some musicians have used cassette-only releases as a stepping stone toward making albums; such groups as the Psyclones, who run their own Ladd-Frith cassette label, established strong reputations in the cassette underground before signing with independent record labels.
To many others, working outside established categories, cassettes are a medium unto themselves, lovingly packaged and sold to active cassette collectors who might be as far away as Belgium or Japan, two hotbeds of home recording. Cassette-only releases range from rock bands recorded live to sonic snapshots to archival recordings to what devotees call "ambient-industrial" music.

Most Popular Medium

Cassettes are now the most popular medium for pre-recorded music; statistics compiled by the Recording Association of America show that about 60% of the prerecorded music in the United States is purchased on cassettes.
Because cassettes can be used to record as well as to play back, however, they have helped turn music consumers into music producers. Affordable recording

The freedom, low
cost and privacy
have attracted a
new underground.

technology, especially the advent of inexpensive multi-track recorders, has made it possible to turn a bedroom or a kitchen into a studio for less than $1,000. And unlike LP's, which are economical only when pressed in quantity, cassettes can be duplicated on home equipment, one at a time.

"Cassette recording is a venue that has never existed before," said Robin James, who plays cassettes on KAOS-FM in Olympia, Wash., and is working on a book called "The Cassette Mythos." "With a homemade cassette, you can get your work heard on international radio and be a citizen of the world."

In the mainstream music business, a homemade cassette is generally regarded as a rough draft, an audition tape or a demo tape. But many musicians have begun to treat the home-recorded cassette as a finished product.

Potential Audience of Thousands

"The stuff that we put out as cassettes is all the same quality that I'd put on a record, absolutely," said the creative director of Endemic Music in Denver, Bob Drake of the band Thinking Plague. "Instead of saving up our money to make one record, we decided to put out a catalogue of all this music on cassettes." Cassette sales may number only in the hundreds, but the musicians can reach a potential audience 末 through radio program, cassette compilations and tape copying 末 in the tens of thousands.
For these musicians, cassettes are virtually art for art's sake 末 a non-commercial, small-scale enterprise, closer in spirit to small-press poetry or experimental film making than to the mainstream entertainment business. Many cassette makers offer their own music in trade for cassettes from others, so that no money changes hands. Others, as Calvin Johnson of K Cassettes in Olympia, Wash., put it, "eke out a vague living" by selling cassettes and performing live.
The cassette underground has its own established companies, among them the cassette-only Reach Out International Records in New York, Green Light in Euclid, Ohio, and Sound of Pig Music in Great Neck, L.I., which releases compilations of cassette performers.

It has regular cassette-only radio programs, including, in the New York area, "Low-Fi" on WFMU, 91.1 FM from 6 to 6:30 P.M. on alternate Fridays. It has newsletters, including such magazines as Option and Sound Choice. And it has "cassette magazines," notably the New York-based Tellus, the London-based Touch and Tokyo-based Tra, which include cassettes and printed matter.

One Big, Noisy Subculture

"It is a huge subculture, and one that makes a lot of noise," said the executive editor of the Los Angeles-based Option, Scott Becker, whose publication reviews about 60 cassette-only releases in each issue. "Here at the office, we have a closet overflowing with cassettes, and we get 50 to 75 more every month, from all over."
The cassette underground even has stars of a sort, among them the California composer Minoy, the guitarist Eugene Chadbourne (who also makes occasional albums), a British pop band called the Cleaners From Venus, and the generally acknowledged father of the home-recording underground,
R. Stevie Moore of Montclair, N.J.

'Production Stays in My Hands'

"A few artists are really putting out consistently creative stuff," Mr. Becker said. "These are people who are pursuing a vision and doing it within a structure that's very kind to them. They never have to listen to people saying, 'No,' or 'We can't afford it,' or 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' All they have to do is make music and put it on tape."

"This is a true cottage industry," said Hal McGee, whose Indianapolis- based company, Cause & Effect, has a mail-order catalogue of 65 tapes, 35 of them by Mr. McGee or his partner, Debbie Jaffe.
"I record on a cassette and copy on cassettes 末 the whole means of production stays in my hands," he said. "And I have reason to believe there are thousands and thousands of other people doing it, too. They're not waiting around for the big recording companies to tap them on the shoulder and give them the right to communicate with the rest of the world. Doing this, you're not going to get 10 million people to hear you 末 but you can do what you want." Mr. McGee said he has a collection of cassettes by 1,300 other performers.
"The cassette format, which can hold up to 90 minutes of music without sacrificing sound quality, encourages some performers to write longer pieces than would fit on an album. And its portability has made it a medium for international collaborations by mail. Al Margolis, who runs Sound of Pig Music, reported that he collaborated on one cassette with musicians from Germany, Japan and Spain.
Dedicated cassette musicians tend to be more prolific than those who make albums. "Where a major label or record artist will come out with at most a couple of records a year," Mr. Margolis said, "there are cassette artists who will come up with six 60-minute tapes a year, and they're trying to do something different on each one."
Mr. Minoy has released more than 50 cassettes of his electronic music, while Mr. Moore has a catalogue of 180 homemade tapes, everything from quirky pop songs to noise collages.
"I'm not just putting out cassettes because they're cheaper, or because American record companies are ignoring me," Mr. Moore said. "My cassettes are a diary of sound, a very personal kind of thing; this is what I do, writing songs and building soundscapes. It's almost a kind of sickness. You know, I just did a whole instrumental album yesterday, on a whim. How else could an unknown have 180 releases in print?"
"There are so many interesting musicians and poets and artists out there who just aren't interested in the mainstream," said Don Campau, whose "No Pidgeonholes" radio program on KKUP in Cupertino, Calif., features home-recorded cassettes. "I'm trying to give them exposure. It's all about fun 末 and a little bit of art, too."

ゥ1987 NYTimes

FEBRUARY 13, 2005