Cassette culture

Cassette culture
Cassettes of varying tape quality and playing time

Cassette culture, or the cassette underground [1], refers to the practices surrounding amateur production and distribution of recorded music that emerged in the late 1970s via home-made audio cassettes [2]. It is characterized by the adoption of home-recording by independent artists, and involvement in ad-hoc self-distribution and promotion networks - primarily conducted through mail (though there were a few retail outlets, such as Rough Trade and Falling A in the UK) and fanzines. [3]. The culture was in part an offshoot of the mail art movement of the 1970s and 1980s[4], and participants engaged in tape trading in addition to traditional sales. The culture is related to the DIY ethic of punk, and encouraged musical eclecticism and diversity [5].


Initiating Factors

Several factors led to the rise of cassette culture. The development of the cassette tape recording format was important - the improvement of tape formulations and availability of sophisticated cassette decks in the late 1970s allowed participants produce high-quality copies of their music inexpensively [6]. Also significant was the fact that bands did not need to go into expensive recording studios any longer. Multi-track recording equipment was becoming affordable, portable and of fairly high quality during the early 1980s. 4-track cassette recorders developed by Tascam and Fostex allowed artists to record and get a reasonable sound at home [7]. As well, electronic instruments, such as drum machines and synthesizers, became more compact and inexpensive [8]. Therefore, it became increasingly feasible to construct home-recording studios, giving rise to an increase of recording artists. Add to this the fact that college radio was coming into its own. For many years there were non-commercial college radio stations but now they had a new found freedom in format - giving rise to regular cassette-only radio shows that showcased and promoted the work of home recording artists[9]. With the influx of new music from sources other than the major record companies—and the quasi-major medium of college radio to lend support—the audio boom was on.

United Kingdom

In the UK cassette culture was at its peak in what is known as the post-punk period, 1978-1984. UK cassette culture was championed by marginal musicians and performers such as Barry Lamb, Storm Bugs, the insane picnic, Instant Automatons, Stripey Zebras, What is Oil?, The APF Brigade, Blyth Power, The Peace & Freedom Band, Academy 23, Sean Terrington Wright, Frenzid Melon, Cleaners From Venus, Chumbawamba, 5ive Ximes of Dust 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, Face Like a Smacked Arse, Fuck Off Records, Music for midgets, Man's Hate (which distributed the International Sound Communication compilation series), 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.

Cassette culture received something of a mainstream boost when acknowledged by the major music press. Both the New Musical Express (NME) and Sounds, the main weekly music papers of the time in the UK, launched their own 'cassette culture' features, in which new releases would be briefly reviewed and ordering information given. In the U.S. magazines such as Op Magazine, Factsheet Five and Unsound rose to fill the void.

The October 2011 edition of Record Collector magazine published an article about the significance of cassette culture in the UK and listing 21 rare but sought after cassette releases.

United States

In the US, cassette culture activity extended through the late '80s and into the '90s. 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 publicize 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 more imaginative, challenging, beautiful, and groundbreaking than output released on vinyl.

In the United States, Cassette Culture was associated with DIY sound collage, riot grrrl, and punk music and blossomed across the country on cassette labels like Ladd-Frith Psyclones, Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine, Swinging Axe, Pass the Buck, E.F. Tapes, Mindkill, Happiest Tapes on Earth, Apraxia Music Research, and Sound of Pig (which released over 300 titles), Portland's label From the Wheelchair to the Pulpit, and in Olympia, Washington on labels like K Records and brown interiour music. Artists such as PBK, Big City Orchestra, Alien Planetscapes, Don Campau, Ken Clinger, Dino DiMuro, Tom Furgas, The Haters, Zan Hoffman, If, Bwana, Hal McGee, Minoy, Dave Prescott, Dan Fioretti, dk, Jim Shelley, and hundreds of others recorded numerous albums available only on cassette throughout the late '80s and well into the '90s.

A notable pioneer of cassette culture and 'outsider' music in the United States is R. Stevie Moore, who, through the 'R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club', has been releasing DIY, home-recorded music steadily since the 1970s. Moore lives in New Jersey and continues to make many releases in the cassette-only format.

Creative packaging

The packaging of cassette releases, whilst sometimes amateurish, was also an aspect of the format in which a high degree of creativity and originality could be found. For the most part packaging relied on traditional plastic shells with a photocopied "J-card" insert, but some labels made more of an effort. The Chocolate Monk-released album "Anusol" by the A Band, for instance, came packaged with a "suppository" unique to each copy - one of which was a used condom wrapped in tissue.[citation needed] BWCD released a cassette by Japanese noise artist Aube that came tied to a blue plastic ashtray shaped like a fish. EEtapes of Belgium release of This Window's (UK) "Extraction 2" was packaged with an X-ray of a broken limb in 1995. The Barry Douglas Lamb album "Ludi Funebres" had the cassette box buried in some earth contained in a larger outer tin and covered in leaves.

21st century

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-Rs, in recent years it has once again seen a revival, with the rise of tape labels like: Already Dead Tapes, American Tapes, Bart Records, Bemböle Cassettes, Breaking World Records, Brown Interiour Music, Bum Tapes, Burger Records, Cakes and Tapes, Crepusculo Negro, Econore, Fadal Records, Fairchild Tapes, Field Studies, From the Wheelchair to the Pulpit, Green Records and Tapes, Healing Light, Heresee, I had An Accident Records, Life's Blood Aural Releasing Entity, Lost Sound Tapes, Mellotronic Archive, Mirror Universe, Night People, Not Not Fun Records, Object Tapes, Obsolete Audio Formats, Olde English Spelling Bee, Pizza Night, Pop Gun Recordings, Pug Records, Retirement Records, Roaches Watch TV, Scotch Tapes, Silenzio Statico, Space Idea Tapes, Spookytown, Stunned Records, Tapeworm, To Hip To Hop Tapes, Tour De Garde, Wohrt Records & Tapes, Woodsmoke and Workerbee Records.[10]

An exhibition was held at Printed Matter in New York City devoted to current American cassette culture entitled "Leaderless: Underground Cassette Culture Now" (May 12–26, 2007).

See also


  1. ^ Jones 1992, p.6
  2. ^ Staub 2010, p.4
  3. ^ McGee 1992, p.vii-viii
  4. ^ Minoy 1992, p.61-62
  5. ^ James 1992, p.ix-x.
  6. ^ Produce 1992, p.4-5.
  7. ^ Jones, 1992, p.9.
  8. ^ Jones, 1992, p.9.
  9. ^ Pareles, 1987
  10. ^ 101 Cassette Labels by CECI MOSS[1]]


  • James, Robin, 1992. Introduction. In Robin James (Ed.) Cassette mythos. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
  • Jones, Steve, 1992. The Cassette Underground. In Robin James (Ed.) Cassette mythos. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
  • McGee 1992. Cause and Effect. In Robin James (Ed.) Cassette mythos. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
  • Minoy 1992. Mail Art and Mail Music. In Robin James (Ed.) Cassette mythos. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
  • Palmer, Robert, Pop Life: Electric Guitars, New York Times, September 25, 1985.
  • Pareles, Jon, Record-it-yourself Music On Cassette, New York Times, May 11, 1987.
  • Produce, A., A short History of the Cassette. In Robin James (Ed.) Cassette mythos. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
  • Staub, Ian Matthew, Redubbing the Underground: Cassette Culture in Transition (2010). Honors Theses - All. Paper 418.
  • Marvin @ Freealbums Various Artists - Tellus 1 & 2
  • Goldsmith, Kenneth, Poetry Foundation Podcast: The Tellus cassettes
  • Weidenbaum, Marc, Classic Tellus Noise

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