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Cassette Culture

by Richie Unterberger

The punk and new wave explosion of the late '70s is remembered, among other things, for having brought the do-it-yourself ethic into popular music. The formation of numerous independent labels, distribution networks, fanzines, studios, and whatnot were unified not so much by musical style as a determination to do things their way, without concessions to corporate or commercial demands. One application of the DIY ethic that was relatively unheralded, then and now, was the proliferation of independently recorded music distributed by cassette. Perhaps the purest expression of the DIY ethic, its impact upon the commercial scene has been almost nonexistent, even as the number of cassette-only releases has multiplied many times over the last fifteen years.

The cassette tape itself is a relatively new technology, only becoming a commonplace household item in the 1970s. It was introduced by the recording industry as a step up from bulky reel-to-reel tapes in portability (if not sound quality), and from the clunky eight-track tapes in both portability and sound quality. In the marketplace, it's been an unqualified success, accounting for more sales than any other format (that statistic can vary according to the source you read). Many listeners turned increased technology to their advantage to tape their friends' records or tape music off the radio, behavior which continues to get the industry up in arms and threatening sales taxes, although the actual impact of such home taping on overall sales is probably pretty slight.

Cassettes, of course, could be used to tape lots of other things besides official releases, including privately performed music. As many channels as the DIY ethic had opened for independent and self-released vinyl (compact discs weren't around then), it didn't necessarily open the door for any old musician who wanted to record and distribute their music. Independent labels still need to be fairly selective about who they sign, and the costs of pressing discs on your own label can be fairly high for those on a tight budget. Releasing music on cassette, though there is a slight drop in sonic quality in comparison to vinyl or compact disc, became an increasingly popular alternative for musicians who were unable to land a record contract, determined to do things exactly their way without the involvement of third parties, or simply wanted to record their own work as an avocation.

The range of cassette-only releases is, to say the least, extremely diverse. There are probably more rock (especially underground rock), experimental, and electronic cassettes than any other, but all types are represented, including traditional folk, world music, jazz, reggae, and what have you. The sound quality can vary from state-of-the-art to absolutely excruciating hiss that challenges the negative standards of the worst bootlegs. The purposes of these cassettes are similarly varied. Some are only meant for circulation to friends and family; some are intended to be taken as legitimate releases, to be judged on the same level as commercially available CDs; some are basically demo tapes, sent to stir up interest from record companies or clubs; some are out-and-out self-indulgent wanking, of no possible interest to anyone other than the perpetrators. Musicians without record deals often have a stock of professionally recorded cassettes of their work to sell at their gigs, or even on the street if they perform there.

A genuine network of musicians and listeners attuned to the cassette-only format didn't begin to evolve until the early '80s, when cassette-only releases received increasing attention in fanzines and national publications, especially the defunct Op. Cassette culture continues to get a reasonable amount of attention in underground publications to this day, although there's no central magazine or clearinghouse dealing with the sub-genre; Option printed many cassette reviews in its early years, shrinking its coverage of the medium steadily until the present day, when it only reviews such releases rarely. Radio stations (almost exclusively college radio and non-commercial ones) also give cassette releases much more exposure than they did ten to fifteen years ago, occasionally devoting entirely program slots to such items.

Just as a glass can be viewed as half empty or half full, there are two valid ways of looking at cassette-only releases. From the most positive viewpoint, no recording medium is as unencumbered by commercial expectations, or as conducive to total artistic freedom. This goes right down to the sleeves, which are often hand-printed or hand-designed. For the increasingly large numbers of musicians who have home studios, or at least enough home studio equipment to record music in some semblance of professional quality, it's the easiest way to record and distribute their music.

A more jaded perspective would point out that the DIY ethic, wonderful in principle, gives voice to many unformed, imitative, repetitious, and downright embarrassing musical ventures through the cassette medium. Just as cassettes enable quality artists to record their music free of commercial pressures, it also enables those without any appreciable talent to record their mediocre, or downright excruciating, music for posterity. Without any professional standards to adhere to, the sound quality on many cassettes is awful, at times absolutely unlistenable. There are even some top-flight cassette artists who abuse the lack of quality-control boards in the medium by flooding the market with dozens of releases, some of them half-baked live performances or studio experiments.

Those aiming to take a gander at the world of cassettes should be aware that it's not only a haven for musicians who don't have a home on conventional record labels, but for entire genres of music which only gain CD release very infrequently. Thus there is a high percentage of tape-only releases in the noise/industrial/experimental vein, as well as other fairly esoteric genres like natural sounds and spoken word. That's not to say that the best of these aren't quality work, but that the medium as a whole leans considerably further to the avant-garde end of the spectrum than the larger music community.

Very few artists make significant profits through their cassette-only releases; the great majority are available through the mail only, usually from the musicians themselves, who are often quite amenable to trading for other tapes rather than selling. There are a few artists in cassetteland who have established a reputation, if even a cult one, through the voluminous and high quality of their tapes. R. Stevie Moore, who has made his own tapes since the 1970s (as well as occasional vinyl), is one of the most famous, purveying a sort of avant-garde pop/rock. Underground rock guitarist Eugene Chadbourne though he's released many "real" albums, has released many more cassettes, often sold on the road at gigs. Experimental musicians Amy Denio and John Oswald among others, released cassettes before attaining a higher level of visibility within the "new music" community.

Cassette culture's influence upon alternative rock is slight but real. The grand majority of rock bands choosing cassettes as their medium will never be heard by the larger audience, but there are occasional examples of well-known, or somewhat-known, bands like Throwing Muses, Sebadoh or Pianosaurus who released their own cassettes before landing record deals. Liz Phair's Girlysound tapes introduced much of the material to become famous on her first two albums in intimate, low-fi versions, although these were largely intended for friends rather than a general audience; they were instrumental in landing her record deal, and are now among the most popular "unreleased" tapes ever recorded by a major artist. The British band Cleaners from Venus were usually content to release their delightfully eccentric British pop, which held its own with XTC and Robyn Hitchcock via cassette only. Calvin Johnson's K label introduced notable alternative rock acts like Lois and Johnson's own band, Beat Happening on cassette releases; the first American Shonen Knife release was on a K cassette (although the music had appeared on vinyl in Japan). Artists like Linda Smith and Jeff Kelly issued high-quality music on cassette that was inferior to "officially" released alternative rock only in its channels of distribution. And occasionally, talented performers who found themselves without a record contract for no apparent reason released their own cassettes to fill the gap, as Penelope Houston did in the early '90s.

Most rap music is played and bought on cassette, and the cassette (in the forms of special mixes, self-produced and distributed releases, or, more nefariously, bootlegs) is a big part of rap/hip-hop culture, particularly in New York City, where one can pick up cassette compilations and mixes of hot sounds literally on the street. Oakland rapper Too Short began his climb to platinum success with a self-distributed cassette that sold in the thousands before he hooked up with a record label.

There are also a few cassette labels that have carved an identity for themselves as repositories of high quality, non-mainstream music, differing only from similar record companies in their choice of format. Some of the most prominent of these include ROIR, with an extensive catalog of cassette-only releases by big-name alternative rock artists (with occasional detours into other music) such as Television, Richard Hell and Nico; Tellus, one of the leading experimental/new music labels of any sort; and Global Village and Music of the World, both specializing in world music. Several of these labels have switched to the compact disc format, upgrading some or all of their back catalog in the wake of the CD revolution.

Finally, it's worth remembering that the cassette remains the primary means of musical distribution, by far, in the Third World. In many of these countries, copyright laws are lax, nonexistent, or unenforced, and pirate tapes are common items in markets and stores, ranging from local musicians to international superstars like the Beatles, Bob Marley, Dire Straits and Marvin Gaye. Much of the music from these countries is only available in the cassette format, as it's by far the cheapest medium for populations with much lower per-capita incomes than the U.S. or Europe, and a great deal of fine world music is only available on cassette, and only within the performers' native territories.

Recommended Reading:

Cassette Mythos, edited by Robin James (1992, Autonomedia)

This article originally appears here:

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