Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cassette Fetish

Last week I received an email asking if I would like to join a forum on cassette culture. Perhaps after years of neglect has the day of the humble cassette finally come?

The great thing about the cassette was that in the period 1978-81 it broke the censorship which vinyl had imposed on music making and distribution. Even after punk and the rise of the independent label the costs of making and the difficulties of distributing records were still insurmountable hurdles for most bedroom artists. Vinyl and its successor the CD don’t really make sense as  a way of producing small numbers of copies. Any print based medium (records, books, films etc) that necessitates the making of a master form which copies are then made will always load cost at the front end, the mastering stage. These costs not only provide a barrier to entry (a fixed sum has to be found) but also are weighed against anyone wanting to make a small number of copies. The more copies you make, the more those cost are diluted, but at the 200 to 500 stage which is where most DIY artists are working its all cost and you are hard pressed (pardon the pun) to just pay for the mastering. This would be different of course were people willing to pay more for small runs but bizarrely its often been small labels who have been the first to try and reduce the price of the finished item. Mass produced records should; always have been dirt-cheap; £1 would be about the right price for a million sellers whereas your small run should be £25.

The humble tape exhibits the reverse of the print phenomena; it makes more sense the less copies you make. The one to one copying system has no mastering costs nor does the photocopied cover. There was also no need to make any more copies than you needed. However this is even truer of the MP3 where you do away with the physical format altogether. Aside form bandwidth it makes no financial difference if 2 people download a file or 2 million. One could argue that the MP3 finishes off what the cassette started it takes the censorship out of the equation.

But we are fickle consumers and like our things, we like to have and to hold, we love to finger the sleeves and collect and display. We even like getting things through the post. All of this is really nothing more than a sort of fetishisation. There may be a danger here of getting hung up on media specificity; of fetishising the cassette when it was the culture that mattered.

Update 2012. Amusing to read this entry form 2005 back as this year I had an LP released in an edition of 100 which indeed does cost £25 + to purchase. Seven years on the MP3 is the mainstream way of distributing music but LPs and yes even cassettes are proving popular ways of releasing anything left of centre. An MP3 release will also struggle to get reviewed and still seems in some ways virtual.    


Steven Ball said...

The fetishization of the medium and the culture are surely inextricably linked. The world moves on and yet some groups are determined to continue working with otherwise defunct formats. Is this the case with current cassette culture? Is there still an identifiable community of music makers in love with wow and flutter? I know that this might be the case with Ariel Pink who makes music that sound like it's recorded on an old worn out cassette. There's something appealing about Luddism as a kind of moral anti-progress stand. As long as there are individuals producing work in that medium, for whatever reasons, it produces and supports a culture.

There's an interesting parallel with super 8 film. When, in the 90s, I was heavily involved with super 8 filmmaking, there was occasionally the charge of Luddism, or technophobia, or the like, levelled about the community of people who were making the works. The fact that there was a convergence of factors that lead people to this place that made work in an old medium was overlooked. These factors were economic, aesthetic and political, the politics of self-determinism, and in some case opposition. But this convergence also produced more than its sum in the shape of an identifiable culture, which while sharing common ground with other areas of art/film practice, was more a distinct entity in its own right than simply an alternative version of a more 'mainstream' structure. And in many cases individuals were attracted as much to the social aspects as to the artistic, then made some films, or not.

Also occurs that the 'post-punk' cassette culture of the early '80s, was very much a precurser to the structure of mp3 culture (if we can call it that). Like mail art it was a peer to peer network that predated Napster, Limewire, mp3 blogs, Audioscrobbler, etc and at a macro level probably attracted very much the same (types of) people. Mp3 has gone very much mainstream though with the iTunes store and so on. Recently I've noticed a well-known (not to me though, I don't recall her name!) R 'n' B 'diva''s poster announcing her new record (!), OK 'recording', as being available on CD, vinyl and for download.

ps said...

From an historical distance it becomes hard to separate tape, artwork and music, particularly as the collage style of many the sleeves is often reflected in the sounds on the cassette and given that unlike most mainstream releases the sleeves were designed and made by the artists themselves. The fetish aspect is hard to resist; I find myself liking many tape covers, which at the time I though were just sub Schwitters.

Super 8 though is a little different; being reversal there is often no print, so what you see projected is what went through the camera. With the cassette culture of 78-81 though some of the recording was made directly onto cassette, often as not there was a reel to reel (even if a cheapo Philips one) used in the recording process. So the cassette becomes a “delivery” format rather than an originating one.

I agree with your point about the mp3 though; it finishes off what the tape started, it removes completely the need fro economies of scale. The love of all things physical is hard to kick though and people still want to have and to hold records, cassettes, CD’s, special box sets and all the rest. But its just a phase….

Steven Ball said...

Super 8 though is a little different; being reversal there is often no print, so what you see projected is what went through the camera.
True enough. I was thinking more of attitudes, the social aspects and the process, their relationship to the 'non-professional', and the locus of exhibition (often 'indie', non-cinema spaces) than the the material artefact.

Historically the love of material artefacts will be seen as the phase, as before that it was all about sheet music and pianos in the drawing room, Guitars around the campfire, etc...