By Duncan Harrison, Audio Preservation Engineer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
In this instalment of Creative Uses of Tape looks at the phenomenon and practices of ‘cassette culture’ and discovers why your long since boxed up and stashed away cassettes may still contain magic.
What do you think of when you consider the cassette tape? What are your memories of using this format? Whenever a group visits our digitisation studio during a tour of the Keep there is always some expression of surprise and remembrance sparked off at the sight of our open reel and cassette tape collections but for most people these memories will be rooted in a bygone time. The majority of our visitors may not have so much as thought of a cassette tape since their own collection was stashed in the attic or donated to a charity shop years ago, but dig into these memories a bit and you are just as likely to hear an interesting story of how that person used and enjoyed them, as you are the phrase ‘I haven’t seen one of them in a while’. For lots of us the experience of using cassette tapes will have been based on recording songs from the radio or making copies of albums to be enjoyed portably, but for others the format is an irreplaceable icon of their own experiences in creativity and cultural exchange. Cheap, readily available and hugely customisable, the cassette became format of choice among a worldwide network of artists, musicians and enthusiasts carving their own paths outside of the commercial music industry in what came to be known broadly as ‘Cassette Culture’.
History of cassette
The first audio cassette was introduced by Philips in 1963 and though commercial music was being released on the format as early as 1966, the poor audio quality of these first iterations – as well as their playback devices – made it a largely unviable medium for music listening. The initial idea behind audio cassettes was that they could be used for dictation, making them fixtures in offices and places of study or journalism before home music collections. However, as the technology was improved over time cassette tapes gradually became adopted as a popular musical format, with home and car playback systems becoming common throughout the early to mid-1970s. For musicians and artists another important development came when in 1979 Tascam released the first of the Portastudio series of four track cassette tape recorders. Within just a few years numerous manufacturers started producing similar machines and a boom of home studio recording had begun.
From the outset cassette tapes were a creative, versatile medium. Manufacturers did not insist on one specific use for them and instead marketed the format based precisely on its convenience and multifaceted possibilities as a cheap, portable audio carrier. Whether you were capturing songs from the radio, recording your favourite albums for listening to on the move, recording minutes from a meeting for later transcription or crafting your own hits on a four track; cassette tape was the medium which allowed you to do it.
Context – How did we feel about cassettes?
In a century during which the arts were responding to rapid emergence of new technologies it should be no surprise that the cassette’s many utilities would be harnessed beyond simple home use and into the world of bona fide cultural expression, but in order to understand how and why this happened it is perhaps best to explain what the format couldn’t do, at least in the eyes of most consumers. Though cassette tapes were a popular and common musical format for a number of years they never became the top standard of the commercial music industry. Even at the height of its development cassette tape suffered from issues of hiss and noise, speed discrepancies between playback devices and physical fragility – surely anyone to have ever used a cassette can tell you a story of the magnetic tape within snapping or becoming entangled in their playback device’s internal mechanisms. For these reasons their quality was generally considered inferior to vinyl records and the format was considered by most to be a convenient but flawed second best throughout its entire initial wave of popularity.
From the perspective of an artist the format was also imperfect. Home recordings on cassette would commonly have been seen as a sketch or demonstration of songs which would ideally be reworked in a professional studio before being published and distributed on one of the superior formats. This, of course, was expensive and required in most cases the involvement of a professional record label to fund and organise the project; something which came with additional commercial concerns, responsibilities and supervision. Though the thinking still exists to a degree that an artist’s legitimacy can be measured to the extent they have achieved commercial investment and widespread exposure, it is now quite difficult in the comparatively democratized world of online streaming to imagine a context in which musical expression was quite so defined by the limits of access to a single, dominant physical format. Nonetheless, this was the reality under which musicians generally worked during the times of cassette and if they didn’t have the money and/or the backing to press a ‘real’ record then their chances of becoming recognized and successful beyond that demo tape were low.
Necessity births invention: cassette culture
Though the landscape of commercial music was heavily restricted by the above context, we must be aware that it took place in the midst of some important movements within music and art which signalled a gradual rethinking of many traditional models. From the western musical perspective this was especially true in the case of Punk Rock which had introduced an anti-authoritarian attitude and rough-round-the-edges musicality into the popular consciousness. Similarly, Avant Garde and experimental musical forms which aimed to push the boundaries of what music was and could be had begun to branch out into distinctly homemade, underground and non-institutional sub genres taking place within tiny pockets of activity dotted around the world. Few if any instances of these musical cultures stood to make an impression in the financially driven commercial musical landscape but they didn’t seek to do so anyway. Engendering staunchly DIY ethics and operating within smaller communities of like-minded fans and practitioners, these were artists who favoured creative autonomy, seeking to determine the parameters of their own success and values.
A series of separate yet often overlapping underground movements developed from this kind of artistic thinking and, lacking in the means to produce high numbers of expensive vinyl record pressings, had to find a way to propagate themselves on a low budget. Cheap, easily available and simple to use – cassettes became the necessary and obvious choice and what came to be known as ‘cassette culture’ began to develop.
What was it like?
Beginning points and early examples of this culture take place at different times across the globe but are hard to pin down as definitive. The ‘post-punk’ era of the late 1970s in Great Britain is often attributed as key to the birth of cassette culture while the work of small handfuls of experimental home recording artists are said to have helped kick off the movement at a similar time in the USA. Huge crossovers also existed in the networks and audiences of other media such music fanzines which advertised and reviewed cassette releases, or the earlier actions of the Fluxus and mail art movements which came to incorporate cassettes throughout the 70s and 80s. Rather than belonging to any one distinct style, practice or audience cassette culture is perhaps better considered as a form of underground music circulation which developed within a complex, organic interplay between pre-existing and developing networks through multiple disciplines.
Bands and even dedicated cassette labels began to issue most or all their music on the format, handmaking covers and distributing them at affordable prices. In many cases, particularly in the punk rock end of the culture, a band would offer their music for no more than a stamped addressed envelope and blank cassette, effectively giving the music away at cost and willingly bypassing any notion of accumulating profit from their work as a matter of virtue in favour of the relationships and community that was built in its place. The inherent audio issues of the medium remained but were in many cases embraced as a better fit for the type of abstract, noisy and often home recorded music being recorded onto them. The double sided and easy to record on nature of the format also lent itself to collaboration. Artists could overdub and edit their own music onto a cassette sent back and forth via mail resulting in new works, and experimental ‘chain letter’ style recordings also occurred between artists who would record a few minutes of material onto the cassette before forwarding it to another who would do the same and so on until the tape was full.
Innumerable variations on the few themes detailed above exist within the history of cassette culture as the potential of the format extended as far its user’s imagination and invention. Whatever form these cassettes came in and no matter what was on them, the key factor was that these objects were not to be considered reduced or compromised versions of a ‘real thing’ existing elsewhere; they were the finished, fully realized item – made legitimate through their circulation within a culture of their own rather than that of a commercially interested third party.
Given the eminently customizable nature of the format the reframing of the cassette as art object also took on more literal forms. This is an approach particularly emphasized within the Industrial and Noise music genres which developed in tandem with and beyond the immediate Post Punk and experimental movements of cassette culture. Many cassette tapes would come packaged within or alongside particular objects or images which in some way bolstered (or further confused) the thematic aesthetics of the release. Some artists and labels became notorious for increasingly elaborate and conceptual packaging which saw the cassettes begin to resemble sculptural creations or works of abstract art more so than musical audio carriers.
Taking the cassette’s potential for reframing in a more understated direction, the ‘RRRecycled’ series produced by American experimental music label RRRecords saw existing commercial cassettes re-recorded with new music whilst the case and shell were crudely redecorated with duct tape and marker pen. For label owner Ron Lessard the act of replacing the material on a common pop or rock music cassette with extreme abstract noise is certainly an aesthetic statement, however, priced as they are at $4 and made to order, the series equally serves as platform to keep work by contributing artists frequently available and affordable. While admittedly legally dubious, the RRRecycled series has become something of an icon when considering creative approaches to the cassette within underground music culture. To date the series alone has produced close to 300 entries across nearly 30 years of activity.
Beyond ‘Cassette Culture’
Without wishing to underplay any specific efforts or the beauty and quality of the wide body of work contained within cassette culture, it could be argued that the real success of these practices lay very much in the fact that nobody did anything particularly extraordinary while enacting them. Cassette culture as a physical activity lay simply in the creative use of a cheap, commonly available object where there were few other choices to hand. Given that the cassette’s secondary status among musical formats the ultimate value of cassette culture lay in its ideological reframing of these attitudes toward and the challenges it presented as to what constituted a legitimate vehicle for an artform. The presence of this culture and ability to participate in it without the need of a great many resources forced questions of why a musical release need be presented in a certain format, in a certain way and through certain channels in order to be considered a fully realized expression of somebody’s art.
Cassette Culture and the related artistic movements I’ve discussed here are pertinent examples of a musical underground’s response to the commercial context of its time but the story is far from unique. Thinking less in terms of one specific ‘cassette culture’ and more ‘a culture of cassettes’, we will encounter innumerable instances of musical forms from across the globe also adopting the format for similar reasons. This article has said nothing of the cassette’s role in hip hop street culture during the 1980s, global rave culture during the 1990s nor the significant part it has played for decades in capturing the popular local and traditional music of many non western countries. The essence these stories all share is their beginnings within the drive to create art from limited resources and the humble cassette tape’s role in this cannot be overstated. In fact, it may not be an overestimation to say that wherever a cash-strapped musical phenomenon took place anywhere in the world between the mid 1970s to the late 1990s, a cassette tape will have documented some part of its existence.
Our cassettes today
By 1992 sales of CDs outstripped those of cassettes and commercial manufacturing of the format had ceased by 2002 as digital technologies had become the norm. It is likely that most of us still recall an awkward format which we were glad to trade in for digital media when considering our own music collections so, while cassette culture is a truly fascinating phenomenon of its time, what does this all mean for those cassettes we have stashed in the loft or gave away years ago?
While writing this post I spoke to Sussex based musician Robin Dickinson about his involvement with punk and noise music cassette culture in the 1980s and 90s. Keen to absorb all the music he could from within these scenes, he happily collected both vinyl records and cassettes during this time. The cassettes he described to me were low fidelity and extremely cheap, often recorded from 2nd or 3rd generation copies before finding their way to him and frequently becoming chewed up and broken in his cassette player. Even so, when speaking about the loss of his entire music collection to a burglary he told me that it was in fact these cassettes that he was most sad about losing. Though vinyl records were more expensive, new copies of those releases could be purchased again. The cassettes however – hand crafted, custom recorded and evocative not just of the culture and people from which they came – could never be replaced in a world that has moved on from the format in favour of digital media.
While we cannot expect every cassette collection to contain rare artefacts of underground musical cultures they all have backgrounds, mystery and histories that extend far beyond the audio they store. Commercially produced cassettes today are reminders of entire industries and modes of listening that no longer exist, and we never know quite what a home recording cassette may contain until we play it. It could be a carefully crafted selection of songs or albums made for a friend or in other circumstances the format could have been used for work, perhaps to document a meeting where we would now use Zoom or Skype. Some would have used the cassette to record the sounds and voices of family and friends, while others – as we have seen – saw a way to create art and connect it with others across the globe. The uses were only ever as limited as the users imagination.
Precisely because we came to replace and forget them, cassettes today feel like little vessels of audio and cultural history more so than the everyday items they used to be. When we play these cassettes back today, divorced from their original contexts and purpose, we gain snapshots into the lives, times and people that used them and hear a part of the way the world used to sound. What might you find, remember, hear and imagine if you were to listen through your own collection again?