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Your Cassette Pet Unspooled Rob Drew's new book delves deep into the history of the scroll-like precursor to Bandcamp.

Your Cassette Pet Unspooled

Rob Drew's new book delves deep into the history of the scroll-like precursor to Bandcamp.

by Alan Rider, Contributing Editor
first published: May, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

The cassette represented much, much, more than a miniature reel-to reel in a plastic shell. It represented freedom, liberation even, from the record industry imposed tyranny of the vinyl disc

Book CoverUnspooled: How The Cassette Made Music Shareable
Rob Drew
(Duke University Press)

There is a great line within Rob Drew’s immersive new book on the rise of the humble cassette, whose impact continues to this day, even seeing a minor resurgence of sorts; “Within its oblique case the cassette tape was essentially a scroll, and as such it required the same laborious unspooling as every sequential access medium since the ancient scroll”.  That irritating inconvenience, compared to an LP, forced you to listen to every track on a cassette in sequence, without skipping, or flipping (although you could fast forward of course). That concept may be horrifying to today’s attention deficient music fan, but the cassette represented much, much, more than a miniature reel-to reel in a plastic shell. It represented freedom, liberation even, from the record industry imposed tyranny of the vinyl disc. Now, for the first time, you could create your own ‘best of’ compilations, dictate the running order, preserve radio broadcasts by John Peel, or create your own copy of an album at a fraction of the price of buying one. "Home Taping Is Killing Music" bleated the 80’s Music Biz, adding the post script “and its illegal!” under a piratical image of a skull and crossbones. That had the opposite effect to that intended, rendering it more glamorous, and therefore more attractive, rather than warning you off.  Who wouldn’t want to be a pirate, rather than a powerless consumer?

Needless to say, it didn’t kill music. Quite the opposite. It reinvigorated it from the ground up. It made music portable through the Walkman, transforming music from something you had to listen to at home, in a record shop, or at a disco, to an ever present soundtrack to your life, that you could take with you to the street, the park, wherever you liked. The cassette medium also meant music that would previously have been deemed uncommercial, or was made by those with limited means and equipment, could be released in smaller quantities than were viable for a vinyl pressing and could be copied and produced at home. The cassette also sat at the heart of home 4-track recording studios and enabled gigs and band practice sessions to be captured easily, preserving them where they would otherwise have been lost. 

Like many others, I myself formed a cassette label (Adventures in Reality), in order to issue music by early industrial and electronic bands such as SPK, Test Department, and Attrition, even managing to sell several thousand of some releases through record shops like HMV and Rough Trade, and distributors like The Cartel and Tower Records. Some that started out as cassette labels went on to greater things, such as Sub Pop, who later signed Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney, and were pivotal to Grunge emerging. New York’s ROIR cassette label released cassettes by Suicide, Bad Brains, Television and others. The NME issued cassettes, including the seminal C86 compilation that preceded/spawned Britpop and even now is used as a term for a genre, ‘C86 bands’. Even punk svengali Malcolm McLaren latched on to the revolutionary potential of the cassette for the band he put together from the remnants of Adam and The Ants, Bow Wow Wow, naming their first single C30,C60,C90, Go! and releasing their debut album on cassette in a cigarette style pack called ‘Your Cassette Pet’. An extensive and alternative subculture sprang up around the cassette as a truly democratic medium, comprising bands and cassette labels that saw the medium not as the poor cousin or entry point to vinyl, but as an empowering and valid medium in its own right.  It is this subculture that Rob Drew explores in his book ‘Unspooled’, which bears the subtitle ‘How The Cassette Made Music Shareable’.

As a US publication, it naturally focuses more on the rich history of the independent cassette in that country, with acts like REM making use of it to help kick start their careers. There was a symbiotic relationship between Fanzines and cassettes, both making use of newly accessible technology to free up grassroots creativity. Many bands only ever released cassette albums. Some, such as UK cover stars The Cleaners From Venus, championed the cassette format, and gained quite an underground reputation and fame (of sorts) doing so. Cassettes were reviewed in the major music press in both the US and UK, and were played on college radio. In the UK, cassette charts began to appear regularly in the weekly music press. Fledgeling acts such as the Marine Girls, Throbbing Gristle, and Legendary Pink Dots in the UK, and Throwing Muses and The Posies in the US (amongst many others) used the accessibility and ease of production of cassettes to help kick-start their careers.

A myriad of compilations issued by small cassette labels introduced the listener to a world of sounds quite unlike any they could access through regular record releases.  Some, such as the 1982 ‘Fresh Sounds from Middle America’ compilation heralded US Indie Pop, although subsequent releases came out on vinyl. In the UK, Third Mind’s ‘Rising From The Red Sand’ cassette series boosted the industrial scene. Australia’s ‘Fast Forward’ and the UK’s ‘Touch’ compilations featured ‘name’ bands and came in lavish packaging. In Amsterdam, shop, promoter, distributor, and label, Staal Plaat and Italy’s Old Europa Café flew the flag for cassettes in Europe. Not all of this is covered in the book, but is all part of the story.

What you get in Unspooled is a very clear telling of how the cassette rapidly rose from it’s humble dictation machine beginnings to become something that both spawned the career starts and alternative cultures described above. And then there's the critical role of the mixtape beloved of many lovestruck teenagers, that also shared and fuelled a counterculture perspective, and challenged chauvinistic attitudes that were rife in the record industry by enabling Grrrl tape trading as part of creating a Riot Grrrl aesthetic through mixtapes filled with female fronted acts. 

Cassettes even contributed to the creation of a truly underground counterculture in repressive regimes in communist era Poland, Russia, China and the Eastern Bloc. The ability to re-record was (at the time) unique and offered a re-usable medium for the first time in recorded music’s history.  In fact, that was very Green, wasn’t it? The mixtape has since become iconic, perhaps fuelling the cassette’s re-emergence as a nostalgic medium, popular with a new generation, despite its museum level technology. In the Middle East and in Asian countries like India, the cassette is still very much alive, driven by the ongoing preponderance of car cassette players and the deleterious effect that regular heatwaves have on vinyl and even CDs.

Rob Drew’s book covers all this and more, in a gently academic, but very accessible, style, with the mixtape sitting firmly at its heart (as indicated by the book’s subtitle). The cassette holds a special place in my heart too, and reading this book really brought home how influential and significant that little, scroll-like, plastic cased, spool of tape was. That many original independently produced cassette releases from the ‘80s are much sought after, and attract high prices on Ebay, tells you how highly they are now regarded. Whether the cassette will really make much of a comeback remains to be seen, but ‘Unspooled’ definitely tells you why it just might.


Essential Information:
Cover art: David Rainey/Aimee C. Harrison
Unspooled: How The Cassette Made Music Shareable is out now and available from all major booksellers and Amazon

Alan Rider
Contributing Editor

Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.


about Alan Rider »»

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