Cassette culture (or the cassette underground) refers to the practices associated with amateur production and distribution of recorded music and sound art on compact cassettes that emerged in the late 1970s. In the Western world it was driven mostly by independent artists and home tapers distributing recordings of live concerts and of radio broadcasts. In many countries of the Eastern Bloc (as well as in the Middle East) it was largely a response to censorship and to the shortage of Western popular music.
Several factors led to the rise of cassette culture. The improvements of tape formulations and availability of sophisticated cassette decks in the late 1970s allowed "recordists" to produce high-quality copies of their music inexpensively. Also significant was the fact that bands did not need to go into expensive recording studios any longer. Multi-track recording equipment was becoming affordable, portable and of fairly high quality during the early 1980s. 4-track cassette recorders developed by Tascam and Fostex allowed artists to record and get a reasonable sound at home. Electronic instruments, such as drum machines and synthesizers, became more compact and inexpensive. Therefore, it became increasingly feasible to construct home-recording studios, giving rise to an increase of recording artists.
Add to this the fact that college radio was coming into its own. For many years there were non-commercial college radio stations but now they had a newfound freedom in format - giving rise to regular cassette-only radio shows that showcased and promoted the work of home recording artists. With the influx of new music from sources other than the major record companies—and the quasi-major medium of college radio to lend support—the audio boom was on.
The culture was in part an offshoot of the mail art movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and participants engaged in tape trading in addition to traditional sales. The culture is related to the DIY ethic of punk, and encouraged musical eclecticism and diversity. Independent artists, recording their music at home, would distribute it with the help of fanzines and social networks, primarily through mail (though there were a few retail outlets, such as Rough Trade and Falling A in the UK).
In the United Kingdom cassette culture was at its peak in what is known as the post-punk period, 1978–1984. UK cassette culture was championed by marginal musicians and performers such as Tronics, the Instant Automatons, Storm Bugs, Sean T Wright, the insane picnic, the Cleaners from Venus and Final Program, anarcho-punk groups such as the APF Brigade, The Crouches, the Apostles and Chumbawamba, and many of the purveyors of Industrial music, e.g. Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Clock DVA. Artists self-releasing would often copy their music in exchange for "a blank tape plus self-addressed envelope". But there also existed many small 'tape labels' such as Falling A Records, Sterile Records and Third Mind Records that operated in opposition to the capitalistic aim of maximizing profit. There was great diversity amongst such labels, some were entirely 'bedroom based', utilising new home tape copying technologies (see below) whilst others were more organised, functioning in a similar way to more established record labels. Some also did vinyl releases, or later developed into vinyl labels. Many compilation albums were released, presenting samples of work from various artists. It was not uncommon for artists who had a vinyl contract to release on cassette compilations, or to continue to do cassette-only album releases (of live recordings, work-in-progress material, etc.) after they had started releasing records. In September 1982 the NME acknowledged the band Tronics for releasing in 1980 the first independent cassette album, entitled Tronics, to be nationally distributed.
Cassette culture received something of a mainstream boost when acknowledged by the major music press. The New Musical Express (NME), Melody Maker and Sounds, the three main weekly music papers of the time in the UK, launched their own 'cassette culture' features, in which new releases would be briefly reviewed and ordering information given. In the U.S. magazines such as Op Magazine, Factsheet Five and Unsound rose to fill the void.
The October 2011 edition of Record Collector magazine published an article about the significance of cassette culture in the UK and listing 21 rare but sought after cassette releases.
In the US, cassette culture activity extended through the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Although larger operators made use of commercial copying services, anybody who had access to copying equipment (such as the portable tape to tape cassette players that first became common around the early 1980s) could release a tape, and publicize it in the network of fanzines and newsletters that served smaller markets. Therefore, cassette culture was an ideal and very democratic method for making available music that was never likely to have mainstream appeal. Many found in cassette-culture music that was more imaginative, challenging, beautiful, and groundbreaking than output released on vinyl.
In the United States, Cassette Culture was associated with DIY sound collage, riot grrrl, and punk music and blossomed across the country on cassette labels like Ladd-Frith, Psyclones, Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine, Randy Greif's Swinging Axe Productions, Pass the Buck, E.F. Tapes, Mindkill, Happiest Tapes on Earth, Apraxia Music Research, and Sound of Pig (which released over 300 titles), Portland's label From the Wheelchair to the Pulpit, Walls of Genius (which released over 30 titles, including their own, Architects Office and The Miracle)and in Olympia, Washington on labels like K Records and brown interior music. Artists such as PBK, Big City Orchestra, Alien Planetscapes, Don Campau, Ken Clinger, Dino DiMuro, Tom Furgas, The Haters, Zan Hoffman, If, Bwana, Hal McGee, Minóy, Dave Prescott, Dan Fioretti (who now identifies as female and goes by the name Dreamgirl Stephanie Ashlyn), Jim Shelley, Suburban Campers, The Silly Pillows, Linda Smith, Atlanta's Saboteur, and hundreds of others recorded numerous albums available only on cassette throughout the late '80s and well into the '90s.
The Grateful Dead allowed their fans to record their shows. For many years the tapers set up their microphones wherever they could. The eventual forest of microphones became a problem for the official sound crew. Eventually this was solved by having a dedicated taping section located behind the soundboard, which required a special "tapers" ticket. The band allowed sharing of tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made on the sale of their show tapes. Sometimes the sound crew would allow the tapers to connect directly to the soundboard, which created exceptional concert recordings. Taping and trading became a Grateful Dead sub-culture.
The Soviet cassette culture was defined by shortages of pre-recorded music and by censorship. The state-controlled recording firm Melodiya issued very few popular contemporary Western music acts; many of these acts were banned as "ideologically harmful" for violence, eroticism, homosexuality, neofascism, anticommunism and anti-Soviet propaganda. Compact cassettes allowed easy duplication and distribution of foreign records smuggled into the country. Some domestic acts were duplicated as well, including unauthorized performances in private homes.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union coincided with the decline of compact cassettes and the rise of compact discs, making cassette culture in Russia primarily a late-Soviet phenomenon.
The packaging of cassette releases, whilst sometimes amateurish, was also an aspect of the format in which a high degree of creativity and originality could be found. For the most part packaging relied on traditional plastic shells with a photocopied "J-card" insert, but some labels made more of an effort. The Chocolate Monk-released album "Anusol" by the A Band, for instance, came packaged with a "suppository" unique to each copy - one of which was a used condom wrapped in tissue. BWCD released a cassette by Japanese noise artist Aube that came tied to a blue plastic ashtray shaped like a fish. EEtapes of Belgium release of This Window's (UK) "Extraction 2" was packaged with an X-ray of a broken limb in 1995. The Barry Douglas Lamb album "Ludi Funebres" had the cassette box buried in some earth contained in a larger outer tin and covered in leaves. Walls Of Genius went to great lengths, spray-painting abstract art cassette labels, affixing hand-made "authentic" labels, painting cassette boxes (the "white" cassette, 1984), creating one-of-a-kind pinup covers ("The Mysterious Case of Pussy Lust", 1985) and issuing Certificates of Genius to anybody who purchased a title.
Though in the mid-'90s cassette culture seemed to decline with the appearance of new technologies and methods of distribution such as the Internet, MP3 files, file sharing, and CD-Rs, in recent years it has once again seen a revival, with the rise of partly or wholly tape-based labels such as Burger Records, POST/POP, Memorials of Distinction, Tuff Enuff Records, Truant Recordings, First Base Tapes and Gnar Tapes. An exhibition was held at Printed Matter in New York City devoted to current American cassette culture entitled "Leaderless: Underground Cassette Culture Now" ( 12–26 May 2007).