The compact cassette was revolutionary. Its size and packaging made it ideal for on-the-go listening, but the convenience of cassettes didn’t stop there. Cassette recorders empowered artists to record and duplicate their own work, eliminating the need for expensive recording sessions and record label support.
Introduced in 1963, the compact cassette was originally designed for dictation. By 1968, high-fidelity versions of cassettes were being introduced and the potential for recording music was realized. In the early ‘70s, artists used tapes to record and distribute poetry and sound art, with some contributing to the mail art movement.
Often referred to as the godfather of home recording, musician R. Stevie Moore began to release his DIY recordings on compact cassette tapes as early as 1973. This eventually led to hundreds of self-released albums and his own mail-order service known as the R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club.
Art collectives and performance art groups spawned bands like Throbbing Gristle who started releasing recordings on tape in the mid-’70s. Each tape featured sessions and live recordings that the band recorded themselves and copied for their friends. Around the same time, the first hip-hop mixtapes were released by New York City artists Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. These groundbreaking tapes contained live recordings captured at parties and shows. Eventually, underground mixtapes used for self-promotion became part of a multimillion-dollar industry.
In 1979, the TASCAM Portastudio became the first four-track recorder based on the standard compact audio cassette. This landmark innovation led to more home recordings than ever before and perfectly complemented the burgeoning industrial, punk, and post-punk scenes. Electronic experimenters Clock DVA and underground pop project Cleaners From Venus both self-released multiple albums on cassette before ultimately attracting some major label attention.
Daniel Johnston had a similar approach and began self-releasing cassettes in 1982. The original run of 1983’s Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album is one of the most wanted self-released cassettes in the Discogs Database. According to the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Johnston would re-record his earliest albums from scratch when making copies for people as he did not have access to a duplication device.
Metallica also released its earliest live and demo recordings on cassette in 1982. No Life ‘Til Leather and Live Metal Up Your Ass are the second and third most wanted self-released cassettes in the Database. However, Metallica was only one of many metal bands self-releasing these types of cassettes. Throughout the ’80s, tape trading helped punk and metal bands connect with like-minded musicians and fans all over the globe. Tape trading helped bands book tours, communicate with interested labels, and — in the case of musicians like Mitch Harris — provide the ability to relocate to another country and join a legendary band like Napalm Death.
With cassette sales on the rise, dedicated cassette labels, and online shops like Tapehead City, the cassette continues to endure. A whole new generation of artists is looking back at the ‘70s and ‘80s and becoming inspired to self-release their music on tape. For the labels and artists that have embraced tapes as a medium, there is something undeniably human about the format as the tape feels accessible to anyone who wants to share their music with others.
It’s also a refreshing alternative for those who appreciate tactile works of art in an overwhelmingly digital world. Even with the convenience of digital formats and the popularity of vinyl, it’s clear that the affordability, portability, and DIY elements of cassettes continue to connect music fans and musicians in a way that only the tape can deliver.