and new wave
explosion of the late '70s
is remembered, among other things, for having brought the do-it-yourself
ethic into popular music. The formation of numerous independent labels, distribution networks, fanzines, studios, and whatnot were unified not so much by musical style as a determination to do things their way, without concessions to corporate or commercial demands. One application of the DIY
ethic that was relatively unheralded, then and now, was the proliferation of independently recorded music distributed by cassette
. Perhaps the purest expression of the DIY ethic, its impact upon the commercial scene has been almost nonexistent, even as the number of cassette-only releases has multiplied many times over the last fifteen years.
Cassettes, of course, can be used to tape lots of things besides official releases, including privately performed music. As many channels as the DIY ethic had opened for independent and self-released vinyl (compact discs weren't around then), it didn't necessarily open the door for any old musician who wanted to record and distribute their music. Independent labels still need to be fairly selective about who they sign, and the costs of pressing discs on your own label can be fairly high for those on a tight budget. Releasing music on cassette, though there is a slight drop in sonic quality in comparison to vinyl or compact disc, became an increasingly popular alternative for musicians who were unable to land a record contract, determined to do things exactly their way without the involvement of third parties, or simply wanted to record their own work as an avocation.
A genuine network of musicians and listeners attuned to the cassette-only format didn't begin to evolve until the early '80s, when cassette-only releases received increasing attention in fanzines and national publications, especially the defunct Op. Cassette culture continues to get a reasonable amount of attention in underground publications to this day, although there's no central magazine or clearinghouse dealing with the sub-genre; Option printed many cassette reviews in its early years, shrinking its coverage of the medium steadily until the present day, when it only reviews such releases rarely. Radio stations (almost exclusively college radio and non-commercial ones) also give cassette releases much more exposure than they did ten to fifteen years ago, occasionally devoting entirely program slots to such items.
Just as a glass can be viewed as half empty or half full, there are two valid ways of looking at cassette-only releases. From the most positive viewpoint, no recording medium is as unencumbered by commercial expectations, or as conducive to total artistic freedom. This goes right down to the sleeves, which are often hand-printed or hand-designed. For the increasingly large numbers of musicians who have home studios, or at least enough home studio equipment to record music in some semblance of professional quality, it's the easiest way to record and distribute their music.
A more jaded perspective would point out that the DIY ethic, wonderful in principle, gives voice to many unformed, imitative, repetitious, and downright embarrassing musical ventures through the cassette medium. Just as cassettes enable quality artists to record their music free of commercial pressures, it also enables those without any appreciable talent to record their mediocre, or downright excruciating, music for posterity. Without any professional standards to adhere to, the sound quality on many cassettes is awful, at times absolutely unlistenable. There are even some top-flight cassette artists who abuse the lack of quality-control boards in the medium by flooding the market with dozens of releases, some of them half-baked live performances or studio experiments.
Those aiming to take a gander at the world of cassettes should be aware that it's not only a haven for musicians who don't have a home on conventional record labels, but for entire genres of music which only gain CD release very infrequently. Thus there is a high percentage of tape-only releases in the noise/industrial/experimental vein, as well as other fairly esoteric genres like natural sounds and spoken word. That's not to say that the best of these aren't quality work, but that the medium as a whole leans considerably further to the avant-garde end of the spectrum than the larger music community.
Very few artists make significant profits through their cassette-only releases; the great majority are available through the mail only, usually from the musicians themselves, who are often quite amenable to trading for other tapes rather than selling. There are a few artists in cassetteland who have established a reputation, if even a cult one, through the voluminous and high quality of their tapes. R. Stevie Moore, who has made his own tapes since the 1970s (as well as occasional vinyl), is one of the most famous, purveying a sort of avant-garde pop/rock.
Finally, it's worth remembering that the cassette remains the primary means of musical distribution, by far, in the Third World. In many of these countries, copyright laws are lax, nonexistent, or unenforced, and pirate tapes are common items in markets and stores, ranging from local musicians to international superstars like the Beatles, Bob Marley, Dire Straits and Marvin Gaye. Much of the music from these countries is only available in the cassette format, as it's by far the cheapest medium for populations with much lower per-capita incomes than the U.S. or Europe, and a great deal of fine world music is only available on cassette, and only within the performers' native territories.
Published before on allmusic.com. Placed with permission.