Michael J. Bowman on cassette as a redemption device
Above, art work by Michael J. Bowman aka Velveeta Heartbreak, “Super Onion Surprise”.
Below, “Spirit Surge”
Artwork available for sale here.
THE CASSETTE OBJECT AND A HOMETAPER’S REDEMPTION VIA THE NETWORK
Ah, the homemade, handmade cassette album.
Back in 1985, when you bought a mainstream LP or CD, you knew the artist had never touched any part of it. Not the tape machines that recorded it, not the stampers that churned out the LPs and CDs, nor the printers that printed the jackets and labels. And forget about driving the trucks that hauled the boxes of records. Or the sales people that made the phone calls between the label, the factory, the warehouse and the store. Or paying the radio DJs that took the payola and played the tracks. It’s possible the “artist” hadn’t even played on the album! or hadn’t even come up with any of the musical ideas!
You know when you bite into a plastic cheeseburger that it’s not real.
When you held a hometaper’s homemade cassette album in your hand, you knew that he or she had been involved in every aspect of it. You were holding a sacred fetish object.
Even a short-run 7” with homemade sleeves, sold by a punk band out the back of their van, or an LP from a label like SST, was not as personal or intimate as a homemade cassette album.
But let’s take a look at the cassette itself, the factory made, store bought blank.
Compared to an LP or a CD, the cassette is complex. The LPs and CDs merely hold the grooves and dots for the machine to read. In contrast, the cassette is a little machine unto itself. You can see that there are complicated workings inside there, but you gotta open it up and potentially destroy it to see what really goes on in there.
LPs and CDs are flat, kinda like paper plates or drink coasters. Cassettes come in a box that looks and feels an awful lot like a pack of smokes. And, up until about 1995, you couldn’t record onto a CD. Cassettes had that built-in risky fragility that made them more special (or more of a pain-in-the-ass). The tape could spool out and get caught up in the player, ruining both the tape and your boom-box. They could accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose) be erased, and recorded over.
That’s right. The masterpiece you worked on all Saturday afternoon? It could be toast the minute the hometaper you sent it to decided to use it to record HIS Saturday afternoon masterpiece. Oh, you punched the tabs out? A piece of scotch tape please.
And did I forget to mention? Opening a shrink-wrapped blank audio cassette was an awful lot like opening a shrink wrapped pack of smokes.
It’s difficult to skip around a cassette. Cassette tapes kinda force the listener to either listen to the entire “album” from start to finish, in linear fashion, or to just abandon the whole piece after a few seconds of play. With LPs you just pick up the needle and go to another part. With CDs and MP3s? Fahgedduhboudit. Nobody listens to an entire “album” any more.
So it is ironic that the cassette, which originally made creating a “mix tape” so easy – was also the medium that was more likely to force you to listen to the album in a linear fashion, from beginning to end.
The cassette also gave the hometaper automatic pariah status, since at the time, most radio stations, record stores, reviewers and listeners scorned the cassette. Some of us wore this status as a badge of honor – or saw it as kind of a quality control factor, in that you knew the only other person who would take you and your cassette seriously, was another hometaper freak like yourself.
The cassette (at least at the time before CDs) was way more modern and “space-age” than an LP. Album covers resemble books, and sit on your shelf like books. But cassettes are plastic, and have modern, plastic, hinged Norelco boxes that can be decorated, and you can take them with you in your car or on the subway. You can make the content yourself. It made LP albums seem like the stuff for college professors and librarians, not the choice of an active, modern artist.
Cassettes were cool! LPs were boring, and CDs were for yuppies or fussy audiophiles.
Can’t form a band, play live or go on tour? This little box could hold all my artistic dreams and accomplishments and carry them around the world to the ears of people I could never meet in person.
Many cassettes I received in trade had obviously more time and effort put into the packaging and networking than into the audio recording that was on the cassette. Which makes sense, since the late ’70s and early ’80s had brought us much the same thing via the mainstream music industry — overblown personalities with no talent to speak of, absurd critical ravings, lavish graphics, gatefold photos spreads, massive PR campaigns, expensive LPs and CDs — all containing the crappiest music you ever heard in your life.
Now that the cassette networking scene has been laid to rest in the dusty pages of the Internet, it will be interesting to see whether the corpse is dissected and analyzed for the concrete objects it produced, or for the audio they contained. Or will the method of the network’s operation, or even the network itself, be the main attraction? In my humble opinion, it is this latter aspect of the “cassette culture” scene that is the most important historically.
The idea that there was something like Myspace going on, but before computers and the Internet, is pretty amazing. The fact that it centered around fetish objects like audio cassette tapes makes it even cooler. And these fetish objects resulted from the fact that their creators had been immersed for several decades in a top-down, one-way cultural exchange, one that force fed them expensive garbage. A weighted playing field controlled by big money interests that sought, successfully, to turn potential musical competitors into servile fanboy music consumers.
Examining a typical collection of cassettes from the heyday of the cassette networking scene, one will find the gimmicks of the mainstream music industry absorbed, fermented and barfed back out by the hometapers as they energetically, and often times desperately and frantically, kick back at the system that spoon-fed them and then rejected them. Why would somebody choose the cassette, the crappiest of the big 3 music formats at the time? Because it was cheap and expedient. The act of creating the audio, then packaging it into the cassette fetish object, was a necessary ritual for these individuals. Like a religious, drug or sex fetish, it needed to be done as quickly, easily, cheaply and frequently as possible. But that act itself did not bring redemption.
The cassette network is beautiful, because it is in the act of networking that these tortured souls finally find redemption. They find a peer exchange with a level playing field.
Certain aspects of the mainstream music industry paradigm are obviously missing — money, big stadium shows, having your name on a glossy over-priced factory produced object, thousands of fans — but the hometaper, when he/she enters the network, finally comes in from the cold. Into a ghetto, yes, but a cozy, warm, friendly and often funny ghetto.
The other beautiful thing about the network is that the participants immediately eschew the two most prevalent aspects of the mainstream music industry paradigm — money and the competition for fans — and opt instead to maintain a networking group that allows them to build huge collections of sacred fetish objects.
Another aspect of the network that made it so successful for the typical hometaper (a recluse), was that it was conducted, for the most part, without face-to-face personal interaction. Again, much like today’s Internet social networking. The typical hometaper is an artist/musician type who cannot succeed in the mainstream music industry paradigm, where the skill-set needed for success includes the ability to win people over onstage, in bars, at parties, in business meetings and during interviews. These are skills common to celebrities, actors, lawyers, politicians and used car salesmen. The introspective, reclusive and personality-disordered artist will not do well in such a game as the music industry. But in the cassette network, you are represented by your avatar, your cassette object. Your cassette object can be prickly, bristly, brazen, rude, weird, amazing, different, shy, quirky, poor, shabby, stupid, smelly, psychotic, confused, unpleasant, whatever. And tomorrow you can make a new one that is completely different.
When the hometaper encountered the network, for once, he was not just jerking off in his bedroom or basement. He suddenly had a dozen, maybe dozens, possibly hundreds of other freaks just like himself, waiting to create or trade a cassette! It is now imperative to make those copies and send them out! Suddenly he needs to get to a Xerox machine, to a post office, this stuff is important! And he conducts his first tape trade. And suddenly he thinks “wow, life doesn’t completely totally suck as much as I thought it did…”