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Cassette culture

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Cassette culture

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Cassette culture was in part an offshoot of the mail art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. In both the United States and the United Kingdom it owed a lot to the DIY ethic of punk. In the UK cassette culture was at its peak in what is known as the post-punk period, 1978--1984; in the US activity extended through the late 80s and into the 90s. It was largely postal-based (though there were a few retail outlets, such as Rough Trade in the UK) with the artists selling or exchanging music on compact audio cassettes via a loose network of other artists and fanzine readers.

In the UK Cassette Culture was championed by marginal musicians and performers such as Storm Bugs,the insane picnic, Instant Automatons, Stripey Zebras, What is Oil?, The APF Brigade, Blyth Power, The Peace & Freedom Band, Academy 23, Cleaners From Venus, Chumbawamba, and many of the purveyors of Industrial music, e.g. Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Clock DVA . Artists self-releasing would often copy their music in exchange for "a blank tape plus self-addressed envelope". But there also existed many small 'tape labels' such as Snatch Tapes, Falling A Records, Datenverarbeitung (in Germany), Deleted Records, Fuck Off Records, ISC Compilation Tapes, New Crimes Tapes, Rasquap Products, Sterile Records and Third Mind Records that operated in opposition to the capitalistic aim of maximizing profit. There was great diversity amongst such labels, some were entirely 'bedroom based', utilising new home tape copying technologies (see below) whilst others were more organised, functioning in a similar way to more established record labels. Some also did vinyl releases, or later developed into vinyl labels. Many compilation albums were released, presenting samples of work from various artists. It was not uncommon for artists who had a vinyl contract to release on cassette compilations, or to continue to do cassette-only album releases (of live recordings, work-in-progress material, etc.) after they had started releasing records.

Although larger operators made use of commercial copying services, anybody who had access to copying equipment (such as the portable tape to tape cassette players that first became common around the early 1980s) could release a tape, and publicise it in the network of fanzines and newsletters that existed around this scene. Therefore cassette culture was an ideal and very democratic method for making available music that was never likely to have mainstream appeal. Arguably, such freedom led to a large output of poor quality and self-indulgent material in the name of 'artistic creativity'. On the other hand, many found in cassette-culture music that was imaginative, challenging, beautiful, and ground breaking, standing up more than adequately beside much output released on vinyl. The packaging of cassette releases, whilst often amateurish, was also an aspect of the format in which a high degree of creativity and originality could be found.

Cassette culture received something of a mainstream boost when acknowledged for a short while in the early 1980s in the UK by the major music press. Both the New Musical Express (NME) and Sounds, the main weekly music papers of the time, launched their own 'cassette culture' features, in which new releases would be briefly reviewed and ordering information given. Indeed even major players such as ex-Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren flirted with cassette culture when he released Bow Wow Wow's first LP (Your Cassette Pet) in a tape-only format on the EMI label -- though this, as with the British Electronic Foundation's Music for Stowaways, was more a response to the newly introduced Sony Walkman, than a recognition of the cassette scene. (Stowaway was the original name for the Walkman.)

In the United States, Cassette Culture was associated with Lo-fi music, and blossomed most strongly in the Inland Empire (California) on labels like Shrimper, and in Olympia, Washington on labels like K Records. Artists such as Lou Barlow, Refrigerator, Nothing Painted Blue, The Mountain Goats, and Wckr Spgt recorded numerous albums available only on cassette throughout the late 80s and well into the 90s.

In the early 90s, Riot grrrl and other activist punk rock movements, such as Queercore, also spawned their own brand of anti-Capitalist tape distribution. DIY cassette labels like Pass The Buck, Octopus Head, Mindkill, and others marked a new wave of rejecting mainstream production standards and capitalist values in the music business.

Though, in the mid-'90s cassette culture seemed to decline with the appearance of new technologies and methods of distribution such as the Internet, MP3 files, file sharing, and CD recorders, in recent years it has once again seen a revival, with the rise of tape labels like American Tapes, noPROFITjustPROGRESSrecordings, Heresee and Object Tapes. Some perceive this as a direct result of the questionable quality and the "anybody can do it" nature of CD-rs. The arrival of this technology may have given everybody the ability to put out a CD-r but in the mind of the underground music collector, this very thing cheapens the CD-r's perceived value. The very easy, but sometimes unwanted transfer of music from CDs and CD-rs to a file sharing network may also be some of the motivation behind a movement back to cassette.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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