Cassette Roulette

Punk unleashed in its wake a wave of Do It Yourself (DIY) creativity. Recording and releasing music was no longer under the sole control of the record industry. Now anyone could (to paraphrase Sniffin' Glue) learn three chords, form a band, and if they could grub together a few hundred quid put out a single. Thousands did just that and with John Peel willing to play many of the records on his late night Radio 1 show and Rough Trade in Notting Hill happy to distribute them a whole new DIY scene began to flourish.

Punk though was about brevity; the kind of soloing associated with progressive bands like Yes was anathema and short and sharp was the preferred cut. Quirky and playful as many of the bands played on John Peel were they stuck pretty tightly to the orthodoxies of the traditional verse/chorus song structure and the classic line up of guitar, bass and drums. Punk was a breath of fresh air after the years of self-indulgent excess but in its way it was also quietly conventional.

Here and there in the cracks an on the margins another tendency was taking form that of DIY electronic and experimental music. Influenced by a range of sources including Kraftwerk, Eno, the Radiophonic Workshop and Throbbing Gristle people up and down the UK began fiddling with old tape machines, oscillators, and radios; plugging the output into the input of any piece of circuitry they could lay their hand on just to see what might happen.

The blips, bloops and cacophonous sonorities produced by such antics didn't sit well with most of the new independent labels and the few hundred quid needed to put out a record oneself was often a few hundred quid more than most DIY experimenters had (not surprising as many were still at school or college) and so people began looking for another medium on which to release their musical excursions. The answer turned out to be the humble cassette tape.

Cassettes had been around since the1960s and had with vinyl been a form of mainstream music distribution since the 1970s. The cassette though was always considered sonically and aesthetically inferior to vinyl. Despite all studio recordings being made on tape (albeit it 1/4 inch or multi-track tape running at much higher speeds) a cassette tape was considered by many to be a cheap copy of the real thing. That you could record tapes at home yourself somehow distanced them from the authority of a record cut and pressed in a factory. However by the mid 1970s the quality of cassette machines had improved enormously and though they would never rival the frequency range of vinyl they offered a good quality sound recording and playback medium.

Prior to punk, bands had used cassette to make 'demo' tapes that they would then hawk round the major record labels in a bid to get a recording deal. Few though considered their tapes to be the finished item; they were rough drafts waiting for the major studio magic to be performed on them so they could be turned into shiny records.

For those on the musical margins the perceived disadvantages of the cassette arguably made it a natural medium. Using cassettes meant there were minimal mastering or printing costs (the tape cover being often as not a photocopied or hand made collage). One could duplicate a handful of cassettes at home or if there was more demand nip round to somewhere like Better Badges, which had a high, speed machine and make 50 copies. Tapes could be easily sent in jiffy bags through the post. A tape could be recorded at the weekend and then be winging its way around the country by Wednesday of the following week.

Word of mouth was all-important and a small network of people swapping or selling tapes soon emerged. With the exception of Rough Trade, most record shops refused to stock DIY cassettes and so distribution was almost exclusively by post. Picking up on the burgeoning scene the main music papers, NME and Sounds began to run cassette friendly features, namely Garageland and DIY Corner, which added a further spur to activity. A number of cassette labels appeared including Deleted Records, Fuck Off Records, and of course Snatch Tapes. Most labels though were run from a bedroom or squat and so somewhat lampooned the very idea of the corporate branded company. Radio silence however was maintained, as DIY tapes were never considered 'proper' releases and as such denied airplay even, on the John Peel show.

So would the cassette fundamentally alter the mechanics of the music industry? For a short wishful thinking utopian period in 1980 it looked like a possibility that the tape might just tilt the balance of power in favour of both the musician and the listener. Cassettes though would be a victim of their own success. Soon there were so many releases each week that Garageland and DIY Corner could have been expanded to fill several pages in each music paper. Given the reliance on major label advertising this was never going to happen. Cassettes were an alternative economy that didn't ultimately suit labels, record shops or the music press.

In the UK the DIY cassette peaked in terms of mainstream visibility sometime in 1982 and slowly slipped (or should that be seeped) back into the margins from whence it had come. During the next decade the tape though became an established format for industrial and electronic music. Just as industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle were going their separate ways in 1981 a number of young artists began putting out their own cassettes inspired by the graphcis and sound of TG.

By the late 1990s it was to be another DIY revolution that would rekindle interest in the cassette. Forgotten except by the keenest of aficionados most DIY tapes were by now lost or sitting unloved in old shoeboxes in attics. The Internet though allowed people to set up discussion forums, blogs and websites in which information could be easily shared across the globe about these obscure recordings. Gradually a number of recordings began to be re-issued on both vinyl and CD. The label, which has undertaken the most comprehensive re-issue programme, is Vinyl on Demand (VOD). VOD also has an online gallery with a large selection of cassette covers and artwork from the period. A number of blogs such as Die or DIY, Mutant Sounds, No Longer Forgotten Music, and Thing on the Doorstep unearthed and digitised old tapes indeed not since the early 1980s has so much tape music been readily available.

In a development that initially seemed improbable in the digital age the cassette was reborn as a DIY distribution format of the choice in around 2010. Improbable as one could of course easily by then share high quality MP3 or full resolution AIFF files on line that are all but identical to what the artist recorded. But that was just it there so many files on Soundcloud, and then Bandcamp, and though there was as a brief period when punters were happy to buy digital downloads file sharing and then streaming led many to view the digital file as having little value either financially or aesthetically. The vinyl revival was now in full swing but the cost of pressing up an LP was as significant as it was back in the late 1970s plus pressing plants became clogged up with re-issues of classic rock LPs and record store day novelty items. In other words many of the conditions that had led to the original emergence of the tape as DIY format were in part recreated. In part at least as there is now a degree of fetishisation about the cassette especially as the norm is to include a free digital download with every release. So the cassette acts not so much as a denial of the digital but as a somewhat nostalgic physical manifestation of it. It exists not in spite of the digital, but because of it. It exhibits and even proclaims its unnecessary being as a feature, it is a kind of luxury. 

The new cassettes containing music, which was mostly recorded on digital equipment so it sounds crisper than their 1970s counterpart indeed the limited frequency response helps to smooth out the sharp digital edges. The covers are now printed in colour and allow for designs impossible with Letterset and photocopiers. For the artist it creates a focus in a number of ways. Firstly artistically a physical release focuses the mind in terns of assembling and working towards a coherent album. Secondly for promotion a tape is physically released, and distributed, and is gift when being photographed for social media. Lastly the tape is something that can be sold albeit with a very small profit margin.

Reviewers inundated with download links often specify they will only review physical releases as a way of filtering out some of the overload, even if they actually listen to the digital file. In 2020 Snatch Tapes released their first new tapes in almost 40 years. So the cassette has an afterlife as unnecessary necessary object of desire.

Philip Sanderson updated 2022

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