The CASSETTE MYTHOS
206 pg. Book (1990)
SELECTED rsm CHAPTERS
From: The Cassette Mythos, Autonomedia 1990
Music is a reciprocal art; there is the musician, and then there is the listener. The world is populated by hundreds of millions of musicians, but only a handful are heard, even fewer are discussed, and a smaller minority are incorporated into history long enough to be outlived by their music. Artists can spend their entire lives telling the world what innovative instrumentalists they are and how their techniques could inalterably change music, but without the opinions of an audience, there's no social justification for what they are doing. It is not inconceivable for a musician to want to work in a vacuum, and many do, but even those individuals often desire a critical perspective. Whether the artist likes it or not, the merits of the music are determined by the listener through a judging process in which the musician plays no part. In order for a musician to receive this critical reaction, there has to be a way to bring the music to the public. Before the twentieth century, paper was the best means of music transference and preservation; now, it's recordings.
Cassettes are currently the simplest and most artistically pure way of sharing sounds. The only tools required are blank tapes, cassette decks, envelopes, and stamps. The peripheral concerns involved in making, marketing, and manufacturing records or CDs are not considerations here. Cassettes are fast, direct, cheap, and limitless, but oddly, they were not always seen as legitimate. Although the cassette has been around for over twenty-five years, its potential has only begun to be fully realized in the last ten.
Musicians once viewed the record as the only acceptable medium for distributing their music. The only time the cassette ever entered the equation was as an intermediary--a master tape recorded on a four-track deck and brought to a manufacturer to be translated into bumps on a grooved disc. Few artists considered distributing the music they'd stored on cassettes, partly because critics, retailers, and other musicians didn't take the format seriously. For people working with new approaches to sound, which often cannot find acceptance for the sole reason that they are new, there was almost no possibility for even a minimum of exposure.
Together, these factors created a perfect environment for an underground to develop. At the beginning of the seventies, some people were making music for fun, recording it on cassette and mailing it to friends and relatives, while others were sending tape-letters to friends; these were the first networkers. A few decided to extend their musical reach beyond their acquaintances, and began to search for an audience by treating their cassettes as finished products, an idea which was slow to find acceptance. Among the more prominent early cassette releases were Barry Pilcher's Valley of the Singing Saxophones and Paul Kelday's electronic music cassettes. Faust from Germany and Throbbing Gristle from England, besides being significant influences on the free-form rattle and hum of the cassette musicians, were also among the first and most prominent networkers, not only releasing cassettes, but soliciting them--proving that small, independent ventures can succeed without the help of major labels. Faust tapes that were sent to friends became fast-selling bootlegs that could only be obtained through the mail; Throbbing Gristle released early cassettes of groups like Clock DVA and Cabaret Voltaire on their Industrial label. Throbbing Gristle's most infamous release was an attache case containing twenty-four live cassettes (each dubbed over a recording of an Abba album). Rough Trade later released a thirty-three-cassette compendium of Throbbing Gristle live concerts, although they soon scrapped the idea and began selling the tapes individually. One of the only other ways to distribute and obtain cassettes at this time was through newsletters, and Throbbing Gristle put out one of the first newsletters calling for strange cassettes, providing an impetus for many others to begin trading tapes. Other newsletters for home tapers soon sprouted. (Matt Johnson, before he became The The, put out a newsletter filled with contact addresses.)
In the United States, in 1977, The Residents were selling cassettes by mail to their hundred-member fan club, while bootlegs of their parent label's Ralph Radio Special broadcast from the West Coast began turning up in odd places. Experimental radio shows, like Ralph's, also encouraged home taping by soliciting for send-in material to be played on the air. In fact, pop anomaly Weird Al Yankovic got his start by mailing recordings of himself playing accordion in the bathroom to John Gullak's California radio show.
A few rock bands also became disgusted with record labels, and began marketing demo tapes as cassette releases, most notably funk-punkers Godzilla. Other unsigned rock bands tried to make extra money by recording cassette releases to sell during concerts. Another catalyst for the trading of rock music tapes was political, and in the late seventies, The Plastic People of the Universe and other (literally) jailhouse rock bands started smuggling their music across the iron curtain by way of the cassette medium.
By the close of the seventies, labels appeared; first as quasi-legitimate vehicles for one's own music, but later as sources for music from friends and mail contacts. One of the first such ventures was R. Stevie Moore's Cassette Club, a mail-order source for all of Moore's music since 1971. For $8, Moore provided the purchaser with ninety minutes of music culled from his repertoire of hundreds of songs. Requests were honored, each cassette containing a different mix of music and coming with a money-back guarantee. Other leading early labels were begun by Alain Neffe with Insane Music in Belgium, Rod Summers with Vec in Holland, Clive Robertson with Voicespondence Magazine in Canada, Vittore Baroni with the Archivo Sonoro in Italy, and Ylem in Japan. Eurock was one of the first distributors to take cassettes seriously in the United States (as was Sonic Distribution Co.), primarily dealing in European progressive rock and experimental electronics.
People seemed enamored with the instant results of this democratic medium--anybody could produce an outstanding finished product with two cassette decks and one gram of dedication. It fit in perfectly with the do-it-yourself mentality, the independence myth so inculcated in contemporary society. The Third Mind record label, as well as others, began as a strictly cassette label. Their first project, a series of cassette compilations called Rising From The Red Sand, was one of the most influential early tape documents. Even Rough Trade began a cassette subsidiary, Rough Tapes, and the rock label SubPop started as a cassette fanzine. Downtown New York guitarist Elliott Sharp released cassettes on his Zoar label, and prolific guitarist Loren Mazzacane started Daggett as a forum for his blues-inspired eclecticism, although both, like many others, pressed their better-recorded material on album.
Early in the eighties, the pace quickened. It was inevitable; cassettes were the quickest and easiest way to share sound. In Amsterdam, Belgium, Germany, and Australia, with Pedestrian Tapes and Fast Forward cassette magazine, tapes were big early on. The Western world soon discovered that their evolution was being paralleled quite noisily in Japan, particularly by groups like Tuf and the duo Merzbow.
In 1979, the single most important influence on home tapers came into existence: Op Magazine, a tabloid dedicated to alternative music. By its fifth (or "E") issue, Graham Ingels had managed to talk Foster into starting a cassette column called Castanets. Castanets was the first readily available forum for cassette reviews with contact addresses, and Ingels (initially worried that there wouldn't be enough releases to sustain the column) soon found himself overwhelmed. By 1983 (the "O" issue), Op had grown tremendously: it was now printed in a glossy format and available in many retail stores. Castanets was growing larger, wearing Ingels thinner; still, he was determined to listen to and mention every cassette he received.
He didn't know what he was getting himself into. There were hundreds of musicians who had been working in a vacuum with electronic and experimental music for years, and now suddenly they had a way to extend their outreach, and in the process get a cursory review of their music. Most of these artists didn't even know that anyone was doing the same thing they were, and ecstatically wrote to get in touch with their invisible cohorts. This led to extended musical families, all fathered by Castanets. Meanwhile, Ingels was swamped, as more and more musicians were discovering that their demo tapes and recorded rehearsals could be treated as final products.
Most of the prolific cassette characters currently active tapped into cassettes through Op, including Al Margolis of Sound of Pig, Hal McGee of Cause and Effect (and Electronic Cottage Magazine), and tireless documentalist Robin James. During Op's four-year life, before it split into Sound Choice and Option, scores of labels came into existence. It soon became clear that anyone could realize their dream of running a private label: the only necessary investments were in the aforementioned stamps, envelopes, and blank tape, and after a year or two of giving away promotional cassettes, the label might begin to support itself. Swinging Axe Productions (SAP), for example, was started by Randy Grief as an attempt to make his music "legitimate." After a few reviews, letters came in from other artists asking Grief to release their music on SAP, and Grief couldn't say no. Mike Jackson began his XKurzhen Sound label at the age of thirteen, and Al Margolis started Sound of Pig with ten dollars.
The upshot of this was that cassettes could work outside of the commercial world, remaining artistically pure because no stigma of "selling out" was attached to them. The music was dubbed in real time and recorded on better quality tape than major label releases, and it could often be obtained by trade or simply by sending a blank cassette and a SASE. No producers were foolish enough to think they could make a living off cassettes, and accordingly they sold their releases for little more than the price of raw materials.
That is, until Neil Cooper, inspired by cassette releases from more mainstream artists like Bow Wow Wow and Elvis Costello, formed ReachOut International Records, or ROIR, in 1981. ROIR began as a cassette alternative for signing well-known bands who had or were looking for vinyl; now, ROIR's cassettes are manufactured in quantities of three thousand to four thousand, and the label's Bad Brains cassette (released before the band had any vinyl releases) holds the distinction of being the best-selling cassette-only release ever: over 27,000 units sold.
With the cassette glut in the mid-eighties, several people tried to organize things. Alex Douglas in Vancouver put out a comprehensive Contact List of Electronic Musicians; No Commercial Potential also attempted to bring the culture together into one cohesive unit; yet the problem with these magazines was that by the time they were printed and mailed, they were usually half out of date. Scores of "audio magazines" and cassette fanzines popped up, firing off a few issues and then disappearing. Zig-Zag, in Australia, allegedly published the first book to deal entirely with cassettes.
The next step was to find alternative ways of working with cassettes. Robin James and Conrad Schnitzler performed cassette concerts (oblivious to each others inventions - RJ), the Antenna Theater under Chris Hardiman in California released instructional cassettes and held guided cassette journeys, Miekal And and Liz Was used cassettes in sundry sound installations, and Michael Sprague revolutionized networking with his Environmental Tape Exchange in Australia. Sprague would ask people to hang a microphone outside their window and send in the sounds. Once the recording, with no overdubbing or manipulation, was sent to Sprague, he would send, in return, a similar tape made elsewhere--from India, Jordan, or virtually anywhere else on the globe.
Another border-opening innovation was "bicycling": laying down a few tracks on a four-track and sending the tape to overseas collaborators to complete, creating a "global band." Perhaps the master of this form is Zan Hoffman, who in 1988 had 120 different releases--although his entire equipment inventory consisted of a dual cassette deck with a mono line in and a portable Sanyo tape deck. His semi-label consists of material sent to him which he digests and re-organizes onto new cassettes, occasionally adding himself in. He rarely makes more than five copies of any cassette, sends no promotional copies to radio stations and magazines, and only operates through trade (no money), which is extraordinary considering that almost every name in the network has sent him material to play with. His most extraordinary side project is his group the Grand Brothers, a vocal and acoustic guitar duo who perform weekly in local spots playing acoustic covers of electronic songs Zan receives in the mail.
Others, too, expanded on the idea of cassette networking: John Oswald, of Mystery Tape Laboratory in Canada, extended his charade to the point of creating a mythical Professor X to head the label, and sending guidelines to members of the press writing about his operations; Mark Murrell, whose Silent, but Deadly cassette covers are more valuable than the contents, started painting, airbrushing, and artistically altering the packaging of his releases, which sell for anywhere from $2 to $200; Touch in England set new standards of production quality and packaging; and Kentucky Fried Royalty tried to match faces with sounds by holding the First International Cassette Makers Conference in Cologne in 1989.
In the last few years, the world of cassette-making has exploded. There is such an overwhelming number of releases that cassettes can no longer be thought of as an underground phenomenon, and there certainly isn't one cohesive network. There is still a lot of networking, though, which can foster the growth of cross-cultural families. More important, there is still a lot of ground left to be covered.
From: The Cassette Mythos, Autonomedia 1990
Mono-manacled la Michael Jackson, although the glove is plain white cotton and definitely unsequined, Ken Oba shakes my bare hand with his sheathed one. No doubt this glove will be discarded before touching any of the Nakamichi real-time-recorded, direct-from-digital metal cassettes he is proudly describing to me. A cloned master recording of Joe Williams & His Blues All-Stars moans softly in the background. The original-once-removed clone is being fed in decoded analog form to thirty-two Nakamichi ZX-9 recording cassette decks, the decoder a deleted Sony product which has been fastidiously reworked and repackaged under the Nakamichi name. The connecting inputs to the cassette decks are gold-plated. The actual cassette parts are from TDK but are individually selected in Japan by Nakamichi and assembled by Nakamichi USA at their Torrance, California, plant. A computer monitors the thirty-two deck/tape interfaces and decides whether each marriage is to spec; those not making it are shut down.
Quality inspector Elaine Goldman is listening to each of their previous batch on a Nakamichi Dragon (another of their premium decks) with a Nakamichi headset, natch. For over a decade they've been making tape decks oriented exclusively to high fidelity, where a tape copy is ideally identical to its parent, and this new line of pre-recorded tapes is intended to showcase this capability.
Across the continent, in an Upper Montclair, New Jersey, attic, R. Stevie Moore, president of the R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club, is dubbing a copy from his personal uncloned master tape in response to a single mailed-in order. Each of the 120 or so purchasable items in R. Stevie's Tapography--composed, swiped, chronicled, or deranged in a continuing accumulation which began in 1968--has a listenability quotient which ranges from 1 (some of the tapes get as low as 2) to 10 (Stevie's particular ear heaven).
"Today is March eighteenth, 1982. Yesterday was March seventeenth, 1982. Tomorrow is March the nineteenth, 1982. The day after that must be the twentieth. I'm now speaking from Sam Goody's, talking to a handsome salesman (giggle). Yeah, he's cute. All right, that's enough..."--actual recording of customer testing tape recorder, in "Salesmanshit" from You and Your Employees, tape number NJ49, a collection of radio spots, jams, and songs, including Moore at age ten in a duet with Jim Reeves. Hi-fi isn't the issue; creativity is. After all, unlike Nakamichi, R. Stevie Moore is the source, and therefore under no obligation to make faithful transmutations of sounds to tape. Tape recorders are musical instruments--a bit monkey-see-monkey-do, but capable of being played expressively.
Audio cassettes now dominate the world of pre-recorded music. Records, while still treated fondly by some, are basically the dinosaurs of the scene. And while cassettes are the big item for mass-market commodities like Prince and Julio Iglesias, they are also ideally suited to minority specialist markets, where a viable product bracket is often the quantities less than a thousand, the threshold of vinyl feasibility. Between Stevie Moore and Ken Oba, as well as abroad, there are thousands of musicians and entrepreneurs personally producing, manufacturing, and distributing their own cassettes. The markets include special-interest groups (audio textural, sound archival, computer, etc.), certain countries (the Arab world is almost entirely cassette-oriented) and special cultural groups, unorthodox music, and high fidelity concerns. Unorthodox music still sells better on record than on cassette, creating a market for fantastic "bootleg" compilation tapes which, because of licensing restrictions, legitimate record companies would never be able to assemble.
The high fidelity cassette game includes, in addition to Nakamichi, two companies in New York, In-Synch Laboratories and Direct-To-Tape. Both feature non-electric music mostly of the European chamber or orchestral variety. Both (like Nakamichi) license tapes from record companies, but also feature their own productions. In-Synch has been presenting restored 78 rpm disc performances of orchestral music from the dawn of electrical recording in the late twenties. Direct-To-Tape specializes in recording church organs and other solo instruments, including clavichord, a precursor to the harpsichord and piano, which is extremely expressive and quiet--and difficult to record. In addition to about fifty tapes in many formats including Dolby C, dbx, and PCM digital on Beta or VHS, DTT sends out quarterly catalog supplements that have some very opinionated equipment reviews and recording primers.
Another company that offers the rarely-available Dolby C format (tapes encoded this way are less hissy when played back on decks equipped to decode them) is Trance Port Tapes in California. Although Dolby C isn't very common, all Trance Port Tapes use it. Co-producer A. Produce explains that the higher-quality reproduction will be appreciated by those who have the appropriate equipment, and that compatibility problems will probably not be noticed by those who don't. The music I've heard on their Mantra II compilation ranges from drone to spastic re-arrangement of Motown to slightly mesmerized rock, all very nicely coordinated to the four sides or, as they call them, "Regions" of the double tape package. Like all the companies mentioned here, Trance Port produces the tapes in real time on their own equipment. (Real time refers to the speed of the dubbing process; the copy and the original are run at normal, as opposed to high, playback speed, producing a higher-quality copy. For Nakamichi, In-Synch, DTT, and others, real time dubbing is the only way to get the quality they demand. For many small producers, real time is a way of economizing, by being one's own manufacturer.)
The most common method of reproducing cassettes is by running off dozens of copies on ten-inch spools or "pancakes," dubbing from a continuous loop which is fed through a bin at sixty-four times its normal speed. This entails designing and maintaining equipment which can reproduce frequencies of hundreds of thousands rather than thousands of Hertz at a speed of 10 feet per second (normal speed is 1 7/8 inches per second) while maintaining a stable path for a ribbon 1/8-inch wide and half a millimeter thick. The tape is then loaded into the cassette shells on other high-speed machines. For years these high-speed pre-recorded tapes foisted on the public were just awful; but since cassettes have become the dominant form in terms of sales, and since attempts at stemming the home taping of records have failed, the majors have begun to look at improving the high-speed, high-profit method of dubbing. Like toothpastes with secret ingredients, tape packages proclaim and rarely explain such processes as SDR (Super Dynamic Range) and QC10 (ten points of "European-style" quality control). This is the same sort of technical and pseudo-technical jargon that accompanied the early days of the LP. Gobbledygook or not, the quality of pre-recorded tapes has been getting remarkably better, and it's no longer a justifiable conceit that better results can be gotten with real-time domestic equipment. Nonetheless, many of the independent tape people are able to produce results superior to what they could possibly get from professional dubs or pressings. They can take the time to experiment and specifically fine-tune the best results for their material, instead of being ignored in the rat race that exists at most pressing plants and tape manufacturers. Low tech, in the hands of talented composers like diarist R. Stevie Moore and sensitive part-time wildman Eugene Chadbourne, can actually be a blessing. An irreverent approach and disrespect for the specified correct method of using recording equipment has produced lots of refreshing innovations in the musique concrte, dub mix, and scratch/hip-hop districts.
Cassette purveyors are able to flourish in the obsolescent market of mail order. Lightweight cassettes can be transported for a fraction of the cost of an LP. The big bonus for customers is that a lot of the mini-moguls of the alternative are so friendly in their correspondence. Tom Furgas in Ohio and Rik Rue of Pedestrian Tapes in Australia are examples of artists who encourage penpalship. Others, like dk of Toronto, shun any commercial consideration; their tapes are available only by trade. In other words, a rare case of music for music's sake.
The cassette entrepreneur suffers from poor display in record stores as well as consumer fears that what they might be buying is a novice musician's first access to a dictaphone. While generic types of music like heavy metal can usually be identified by the chrome-logo'd packaging, the only satisfying method of discernment in cases where an artist crosses, expands, or ignores the genres is listening (and very few record stores will ever do this). Since many cassette productions have cover graphics designed by the recording individuals themselves, the only information usually determinable is whether or not the musicians featured have gone to art school. Option's Scott Becker has said of "audio magazines": "[It's] another way of saying it's a compilation cassette enclosed in a fancy vinyl case along with some arty printed matter." The sound format of these collections is usually staid and predictable in comparison to the visuals, but a few outfits are experimenting with new ideas in this potentially distinctive medium. Many tape artists are also creating personalized multiples of their work, like the twentieth century artists who have made a tradition of the limited edition print--but so far without the exploitation. That these items are available for less than ten dollars is, in some cases, astounding.
At the home office of Nakamichi, in Japan, there is a concert hall in which occasional piano recitals and the like are given. Following the direct experience, upon leaving the hall, the listener is given a cassette which is a recording of the event as it happened, a microphone feed to several dozen behind-the-scenes Nakamichi (of course) decks. The reproduction can be compared to the original experience.
Meanwhile, R. Stevie Moore is making his latest song utterly distinctive by adjusting his equipment in such a way as to void any warranties. The original and reproduced experiences are both there on tape--which is about par for the course in the specialized world of cassettes. The medium is so malleable that if a listener no longer wants a particular acquisition, something else can be recorded over it. Try to do that with a record.
Mr. Oswald also wrote about Plunderphonics.
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