At Melbourne's annual 'Face The Music' industry conference last year, independent music kingpin Steve Albini addressed his audience in a keynote speech on the 'surprisingly sturdy state' of the industry. Operating under the guise of "recording engineer" for the past 40 years, Albini is also a member of the band Shellac. Throughout his address he traced music production history over the decades, pushing much needed optimism into the future of digital music. It was a celebration (as well as an commendable acknowledgement) that something had come along to dismantle the inequalities of the industry-based system that had fraught the purity of the message with unwelcome constraints.

Bolstered by the arguments laid out in his '93 seminal essay 'The Problem with Music', he also outlined the conditions from which the cassette was to be born. He emphasized the inefficiencies of the label-dominated industry, and the exploitation of musicians that led to sub-par music. Between the years of 1970-1990, the term 'the record industry' was simply interchangeable with 'the music industry'. Up until this period, and still prevalent throughout it, records and radio were the primary channels by which the people were learning of music. MTV and videos joined in the '80s and '90s, but generally speaking, "there was a blooming band scene and all bands aspired to getting recorded, as a mark of legitimacy."

Albini notes the entangled and leaky nature of the industry, with bands reaching 'the big time' generally coming out at a loss once studios, agents, managers, roadies and promotional staff all received their slice of the pie. It established a rigid hierarchy of power that left bands at the mercy of their superiors, solidifying a top heavy industry that rendered the musical message as only the tip of the iceberg. However, most artists failed to even catch a glimpse into this world. With recording being a rare and expensive enterprise, not many musicians had the luxury to experience what it was like to put out a record, let alone a demo.

Independent Label Market 2012

The cassette changed everything. Coming to rise around the mid '70s, Tascam and Fostex began putting out their own models of four-track recording devices based on the standard audio compact cassette tape. They possessed a high level of functionality at an inexpensive price, meaning that practically any musician regardless of status could own one. The introduction of four, eight, and even sixteen track recording to cassette meant that artists could manage their own micro studio, recording instrumental and vocal parts of different tracks and mix them down to form a stereo recording. The cassettes could then be loaded with two sides of recorded material and fitted with artwork, just as a vinyl would, except at a fraction of the size and price.

Punk musicians of the '70s were said to have used this format to solidify their DIY ethic, as well as illustrate their anti-consumerist and anti-establishment ideology. Emerging punk bands of the time recorded music and entire albums independently, taking every facet of music promotion into their own hands. Their desire for independence was so extreme that they often performed at basement shows and residential homes, rather than traditional venues. Perhaps this was due to their unsuitability for mainstream audiences, but nonetheless they did anything they could to distance themselves from the traditional music industry system. They enjoyed being separate from the glossy, stylized pop music that saturated the charts. It was an attitude (soon to become an entire subculture) that could finally be spread to the masses via the aid of cassette recording and distribution.

Similarly, the tape format also provided wings for another forming genre of the time: hip-hop. For almost a decade, hip-hop existed solely as a live performance, with parties thrown by DJs in Bronx basements and project parks. This marked the first time in music history where audio was now mobile. The portability of the newfound cassette recorder meant that tapes of live jams and radio shows could now be widely copied and circulated hand to hand. Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard, Theodore and Fearless Four all came to rise through recordings that were free of charge to record and distribute. Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito had a show on Colombia University radio between 1-5am, and had the recordable cassette never have been invented, their show would have gone un-listened. Avid fans of the duo would record the show overnight and listen back in the morning when they were fresh.

Fast-forward 40 years and everything seems to have changed. Digital music has cemented itself solidly at the forefront of music consumption, and suddenly formats like the vinyl or the tape appear a tad anachronistic. Why use an outdated medium when you can log onto Youtube and find a whole playlist of your favorite One Direction moments? The listening experience has changed dramatically. From sitting down and consuming 30 minutes of music that someone has carefully put together, listeners now flick through tracks faster than a cash point dispenses money. Bands can separate themselves from the corporate cog of the music industry by simply creating a 'bandcamp' or 'soundcloud' account. Promotion and distribution can be done online, along with just about anything else. Suddenly tapes and vinyl are no longer required; but who still sees the appeal in the authenticity and quality they provide?


Today

Burger Records, founded by Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard in 2007 out of Fullerton, California, is just one of hundreds of cassette labels in operation around the globe. They put out albums from a variety of artists, just like any other label would, but it's less of a business transaction for musicians as it is a platform to release music. There are also additional features to the label, like regular mix-tape releases and tailored TV and radio stations. This aids in bringing back some of the more grassroots elements of cassette culture - mixtapes being the cornerstone of any flourishing relationship in the '80s and '90s.

Bohrman stands by how inexpensive, durable and portable cassettes are. "They're 50% cheaper than a CD (or even a digital album), they fit in your pocket and you can play them over and over in your car." Not only that, but you can throw them around and not worry about so much as a scratch that would completely destroy a CD-R. Burger sells their tapes for $5 USD in person and 6$ online. That's only a couple of quid. If all music were this cheap, we wouldn't need to resort to the torrents that are putting so many musicians at a disadvantage.

Not only that, Bohrman believes the way in which people are consuming digital music is negatively effecting some of the choices artists make when composing albums. "Bands are trying to create a listening experience from the first track to the last. They put together their songs in a specific sequence. They're [listeners] making their own playlists, cutting out songs, and not letting songs grow on them. If they don't like it after the first 10 seconds, they're onto the next thing." With cassettes, just like with vinyl, it is much more difficult to skip through tracks. These formats make listeners hear both sides of the record, which is how the band intended it. To go against that is to cut out half of the enjoyment of the music altogether.

Burger Records is just one of hundreds of tape labels in operation (see, OSR Tapes; Spooky Town; Hooker Vision; Night People; Gnar Tapes, just for a taste). What they all have in common is an unwavering aspiration to capture the essence of underground music, and share it with others. This can range anywhere from bedroom and noise music, to metal, punk and hip-hop. Some focus on albums, others on live recordings or works-in-progress. The aim is simply to operate in opposition to the capitalistic aims of maximizing profit.

Independent Label Market 2012 - Los Angeles

One idea that tests this theory is the emergence of Record Store Day and Cassette Store Day. Revealing that from around 2007 these formats have successfully become revitalised and 'back in use', the need to illustrate this through selling product seems a tad ironic. Sure, CSD reiterates to music lovers that cassette culture is still alive and kicking, and independent stores are joining arms to rejoice. But wherever there is a beating heart the masses are sure to follow. CSD has proved that more high-profile bands are taking a newfound interest to tapes. Various labels now issue limited edition tapes; the likes of Flaming Lips, Animal Collective, and Haim, just to name a few. Bands that even in the semi-mainstream realm have approached the craft a little off-centre.

There is an obvious degree of divergence here from the formats birthplace, not to mention CSD's motive in trying to compete in the big leagues. Is there a golden trophy to be won for the most legitimate record label, and do some of those involved still feel slightly inadequate with their chosen format? Surely there isn't a necessity to be taken seriously, especially by the major labels that produce the music they are against. Their DIY ethos is what sets them apart, and is ultimately what lovers of the format stick around for. Any attempt to professionalise the format would trample on the legitimacy that they have acquired by opting out of the mainstream formula. Built from a foundation of pure intention but imperfect methods, the transition seems unnatural.

With any luck, this year should see a further rise in the use of the tape - but hopefully with the recognition that imperfect, dusty and raw is all that it will ever be. Formats grow in popularity when there is a desire for what it can offer, or when it gets taken in its early stages and devoured by the content hungry, mouse-clicking youths. Fortunately for tape, it is no longer required. It survives on its own merits and is consumed by those who see its appeal. Current tape labels seem to have struck the perfect balance. It's all evidence enough of the cassettes revival, and with any hope we will be around long enough to see it keep on rolling.