Michael J. Bowman muses on being a home taper
A Few Thoughts on the “Cassette Underground” and “Hometapers” (by a hometaper who was there)
I began receiving Mike’s tapes sometime in the early 90s and was blown away by his songwriting and musical skills. One of the truly fine underground pop home tapers in my opinion. However, MJB has also dabbled in experimental music at times and his visual art work is staggering in scope and thrilling in originality. Below, his master work ( “Free Yourself From The Chains Of Irony”) that now graces one entire wall of one of our bedrooms.
Credited to Velveeta Heartbreak, the cover depicted above (The End Of The Rainbow) is a two CD set that collects some of Mike’s finest tunes from 1989-2006. A must have in my opinion.
His art work for the Cassette Culture Compilation Vol 1 that I produced for the Cassette Culture.net web site.
In addition to MJB solo releases, Mike has also done projects under different names such as Velveeta Heartbreak, Stars And Butter, Magic Plastique and many collaborations with other artists ( including me).
I guess it would be too easy to say that the whole thing was about music you were never going to hear, made by people you never heard of, written up by people who can’t write, published in zines that nobody reads. An entire lost world of recording artists and albums that now only exists in the minds of the participants.
But once upon a time, there was such a world (circa 1980-1995). And it was totally for real! And the recording artists, or “hometapers” as we called ourselves, were real too. And the albums we made were real. They existed on cassette tapes only, and we sent them via padded envelopes in the mail to the other hometapers. And then we made zines and wrote about our tape trades and sent the zines to other hometapers. Each unknown cassette artist had his/her own tape “label” with a xeroxed catalog offering dozens of homemade C-60s and C-90s with homemade xeroxed cover art. You had to be in it to win it. There were no spectators, fans or consumers, only participants.
It was in this regard, as a participatory network, that the “Cassette Underground” distinguished itself from the existing music industry paradigm. Whereas the music industry exists to serve a music consumer, the Cassette Underground existed to serve itself.
In the music industry of that time, the artist was employed by the label and sold his work to the label. More often than not a band was formed. The label made a recording as a vinyl LP or a CD, sold it to the chain stores, bought advertising and reviews in the music magazines (enter Ritchie Unterberger), and the artist went on tour to promote the recording. Cassette tapes were reserved for demo tapes, recording your friend’s record or CD collection, or as a cheap tertiary collateral product to the primary vehicle of LPs and CDs. Record stores, DJs, labels, bars, radio stations, music critics and music magazines were all a part of the music industry that an artist, his or her band, and a label had to deal with in order to sell an LP, 7-inch, CD, T-Shirt or Live Performance to a music consumer.
None of these things happened in the Cassette Underground, except for the making of the recordings.
In the Cassette Underground, there were few or no “bands”, only individual artists. The artist would make a recording(s) at home onto a cassette 4-track. Then the artist would mix those separate audio tracks onto a second cassette, the “master”. Then the artist would make anywhere from 10 to 100 cassette copies from that master using a dual-cassette boom-box. These copies were not demo tapes, they were the end product. The hometaper did not endeavour to “get signed” by sending these cassettes to music critics or record labels, or to book a gig by sending these copies to bars and nightclubs. The cassette copies were the end product, to be sent via the mail in padded envelopes to other hometapers. The artist would title the recording(s) as if it were an “album” and create cover art for the copies in the form of xeroxed or hand colored j-cards. (J-cards were the paper inserts that fit into the plastic Norelco cases which held the audio cassettes). Finally, the artist would mail these copies to other hometapers that the artist had read about in a zine, either one that was about hometaping itself (Gajoob, Autoreverse), or one that had decided it was cool to feature underground cassettes (Sound Choice, Factsheet Five) or a personal zine that happened to be made by someone who was into hometaping (File 13, Spinal Jaundice, etc…) When the artist mailed the copies, included would be a request to “trade tapes”. Also included would be photocopies of j-cards, fliers and catalogs of the artist’s own recordings, along with photocopies of other hometapers’ promo material being passed on.
It was in this fashion that thousands of hometapers worldwide, prior to the existence of the Internet, came to know of each other and to trade their audio creations with each other.