The Cassette Scene

For a decade or so I was part of the cassette 'scene' as a label owner (Peeved), music maker (Dead Goldfish Ensemble et al) and occasional author for Stick It In Your Ear (SIIYE) and Scene And Heard (a local music magazine in Cambridge). My journey started with SIIYE and an interest in the Southampton music scene partly fuelled by a quest for new music to play on a student radio station. For me, at least, a significant part of the interest was the rather romantic notion of 'discovering' music before it became well known.

The purveyors of the idea that there was a cassette 'scene' mostly confused the medium with the message. The music and the motives of the people involved were as diverse as ever and the only new thing cassettes brought was the ability to do just in time production (i.e. only produce what was required). In purely business terms this greatly lowered the barriers to entry - any one could record a rehearsal or gig on a cassette machine and duplicate it for the cost of the tape. The cassette as a format had been around for over a decade at this point but the tipping point, as it was for fanzines, was the upsurge in the number of bands in the wake of punk. The music was less important than the rhetoric of DIY. The cassette started being an important medium in the late 70s with the arrival of the Walkman and in car players allowing music to become ubiquitous in a way that records could not. The cassette also allowed quite sophisticated home recording via the 4 track Portastudio.

For musicians the cassette was the great enabler, for aspiring music writers it was cheap photocopying, allowing similar low volume, as needed, production. Another reason for the popularity of cassettes as a DIY medium was the ease and cheapness of posting them compared to vinyl. For some this aspect of remotely accessing music from around the world was a key part of the romance of the scene. Now that the web provides instant access to the world are people taking advantage of it? I suspect not, we tend not to value things that are free and easy.

I suspect another cause of the cassette upsurge in the early Eighties was the rise in youth unemployment providing the time for people to form bands etc. and an audience that really appreciated the cheapness of the medium. The Young Enterprise Scheme also allowed a lot of bands to subsist for a year at the public's expense whilst they tried to make a success of the music.

In the wake of punk all the music papers were looking for the next wave / movement and for a while flogging tapes rather than records seemed like it might be the latest thing. But believing the medium to be the only thing binding together a musical 'movement' is clearly a mistake so it was only ever going to be a seven day wonder. In any case for many of those involved tapes were only ever a cheap substitute for the vastly more impressive vinyl. As always people are impressed by something that requires more cash to produce, rightly regarding it as a reasonable proxy for quality. If it costs (nearly) nothing to produce then it is all to easy to produce rubbish. Convincing some-one to put the money behind a record at least shows some commitment. In the same way today, when everybody could be producing music for download only, bands with serious intentions all aspire to release CDs. After all do you have time to browse through all the bands on e.g. MySpace (8 million apparently) or do you restrict yourself to browsing racks of CDs?

In terms of numbers of tapes sold the output of the cassette scene is probably the merest blip in TDKs sales figures. An essentially word of mouth product predominately sold by mail order with only limited coverage in the national papers it was never going to become the majority way of consuming music. Most artists approached it in that light and arguably there was a lot of music produced that didn't solely pander to lowest common denominator commercialism and for that we should be grateful. It also allowed the artist considerable control of the product and contact with the fans (should there be any). Of course, for some the cassette was a political statement, an 'up yours' to the record industry but even these, if they had any talent, by and large succumbed to vinyl (or in recent years to CDs).

The most distinctive aspect of the cassette boom was the number of labels essentially set-up to produce compilations, often based around themes. These ranged from the mundane (cars, telephones) to the label owners obsessions (Sam Fox) to the abstract (All Bare Or Dead Forms Under Sunlight Cast Mysterious Shadows On The Snow). Most wanted original material but occasionally there would be requests for specific cover versions. The flyers informing one of these opportunities to contribute were a welcome accompaniment to nearly every tape I received. The labels were predominantly based in Europe with just a few in the UK and US. As the Eighties progressed there was an increasing cross-over with the mail art movement which similarly sought to link together producers. Almost without exception the tapes came with wonderful sleeves, to the point it often felt like more care was taken with the packaging than the music.

By the Nineties the requests to contribute dried up and I stopped being active. Within a few years web arrived and the limited distribution offered by cassettes no longer seemed to make sense anyway. With the arrival of the MP3 player cassettes were ready for obsolescence and 20 years later they almost are (try buying tape now).

Come the second decade of the 21st century and cassettes, presumably because of their rarity, seem to have become sought after. I have had a few people wanting the Peeved Records back catalogue but it has to be on cassette. One would hope that the music was more important than the medium but it appears not. Some of the tapes are starting to appear on the internet (one of mine has recently been put up by persons unknown). Whilst in some ways flattering it is a little irritating that the decision has been taken out of my hands. For 20+ year old music it is not too bad but for people earlier in their career it removes one possible source of income.

Historically the cassette scene is a mere footnote, a seven day wonder of press coverage that died a natural death over a few years. But that is the nature of music, it is essentially a matter of the latest fashion and a few of its participants will have a lasting impact. Off the top of my head I'd say that The Cleaners From Venus, Legendary Pink Dots, Portion Control and Tracey Thorn fall into that category, but I am sure you know of some more.

Originally publish in Caught In The Act (produced by the aforementioned Stick It In Your Ear)

There are of course many other perspectives on the cassette scene. One of the best, that includes something of the history, is by Don Campau.


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Last modified 9-7-2022