Cassette Culture was an Iceberg.
We all know that change is one of the only constants in life. So, it is not surprising that Cassette Culture would undergo a transformation as time went on. In fact, it was constantly changing (like everything does) but there were times when it sort of flipped and became something else.
The advent of the affordable (for many at least) multi track recorder was one of these evolutionary moments. Teamed up with the small, easily obtainable recordable cassette this completed the picture and really jump started the entire movement.
To me, it was never about cassettes per se but about the affordability and accessibility, the fact that almost anyone had a tape deck to play or record them on, and the breakthrough in sound fidelity meaning one could make and distribute music and sounds that were worth hearing.
So, these were the primary tools. Some blank tapes, a recorder and a deck to make copies. Maybe you had a guitar, cheap keyboard or microphone. Next came the utilization tactics, the distribution. This was facilitated in the USA at least by the reviews section in the magazines of the time. As stated before, this was OP, Option, Sound Choice, Factsheet Five and then later Gajoob, Autoreverse and Electronic Cottage. There were others as well. Home tapers would also make little flyers they would include in their packages: invitations to compilations, announcements of new releases, strange mail art, etc. This was also a small time system of promotion and distribution.
Many people still were ensconced in the traditional, capitalistic thinking though. Plus, not everyone had the expendable income to freely send out tapes to trade. Some deluded individuals actually believed that their cassette tape (probably shrink wrapped and professionally duplicated) would be their “ticket out of here”. (Side note: this only got worse when people could make their own CDs.)
However, the stage was set for a community to be built. At the time I felt a palpable excitement that something new was breaking. It was artists claiming their birthright to exchange music, poetry, weirdo sound collages, noise, “talk” tapes, and even, in rare cases, blank tapes.
Early on I offered free radio tapes to anybody who sent me a blank tape. They simply paid the postage and usually got a tape with their own music on it.
I also usually sent people my own music in exchange even if they were only interested in getting airplay for theirs. A few years in I realized that many people did not want my tapes but only the exposure. That was fine although hardly community spirited. But, as I alluded to, not everyone was into the idea of the community.
But, there were plenty who were. It was hard to tell how many but they seemed to be everywhere, or at least, in the USA, Europe, Russia, Japan, South America and Australia. I did get the rare tape from the mideast, or Northern Africa, or Hong Kong but those were pretty rare.
So, for me, I imagined the scene as an iceberg floating in a sea of possibilities with everyone involved seeing or interacting with it from only their perspective. Some people had extensive contact with overlapping pools of traders. Others stayed within a certain clique they had established. I always wondered…how much am I not seeing? And, where are all the women? I did know a handful of female home tapers (including my future wife) and would ask them about it but no one really seemed to know.
I am glad that in today’s music, art and experimental communities there are beaucoup women participating and creating amazing works and sharing them with the world.
But then, it seemed rare. So, were there tons of people home taping and not involved in the exchange element? Well, probably. It was not as easy or fast as it is now. And how could we know?
Years went by and people created bodies of work, made contacts and friends, did occasional gigs outside of their own areas, mailed out slews of tape albums, occasionally got reviews in the magazines , got some radio play (such as my show or Little Fyodor’s show in Colorado, or Lord Litter in Germany). But of course, the iceberg started to melt and there was slippage.
The demise and change of some of the magazines, although inevitable for economic reasons, put a damper on things. Some mags popped up to replace the well known ones but ultimately they could not sustain themselves. Important people in this regard were Bryan Baker , who worked for years doing Gajoob (while making his own excellent music), Ian Stewart who ran Autoreverse (while being a home taper and also playing in bands such as “Devilcake”…who only did songs about food!), Hal McGee who published the hard copy version of Electronic Cottage (did his own music, and was a tireless champion of the scene) and there are probably some others that slip my mind right now.
The next change was the advent of the CDR. One of the reasons musicians turned to the cassette in the first place was the cost and accessibility of the cassette. But, most audiophiles and fidelity snobs laughed at the poor tape. Who was going to take you seriously?
Many bands and artists really wanted to make vinyl but the cost was prohibitive to most. And how could you release several albums a year if you spent all your money on one record? Vinyl was prestige, status and a mark that you had reached a different level.
The “revolution” of the CD was, to begin with, a way for the record companies to spend less, raise prices, and make huge amounts of profit while appearing to be “cutting edge” and super high fidelity. Of course the CD itself would turn out to have one of the shortest life spans of any media type ever.
But at the time (around 1995 or so) this was the next jump and major shift.
The idea of the cassette tape started to fade as soon as it was possible to record and duplicate your own CD. At first it was kind of expensive so it took some time to be the next “lingua franca” of the home taper scene but it happened and it did the damage.
So, the mags were gone, tapes were obsolete, the internet not yet in full swing…this created a void that some (many actually) could not overcome. Some people (like me and many of my friends) had fostered friendships that would persist and become vehicles for future contact with their own friend bases but I was lucky, I had a radio show. People still wanted to know me and send me their music.
Most of them did not give a whit that I had my own music, they just wanted airplay.
So the cheerleading and mutual support aspect of the home taper scene was already diminished and hobbling along on life support. So, this is when the scene died for many although not for me.
Next time I will give my thoughts on the biggest change in all of our lives in regard to communication and one that everyone knows about in their own way…the internet.
Is the internet inherently superficial? Is community only possible with social media? Is there any hope of creating the community that once was…and why should we?
Oh by the way, I still accept your music for radio play. Please go to my submission link for all details:
My pictures show the evolution and change in my own collection. I once had many thousands of tapes easily accessible in these revolving displays. But, years later I had shipped many tapes to Germany for Frank Maier's Tape-Mag.com project and needed room for the new CD shelves.
My name is Don Campau and I have been involved in underground and non mainstream music and radio since 1969. I continue to be an active home taper and Cassette Culture archivist with my own site, The Living Archive.