I held the deadly object in my hand with fascination as I committed my first crime at 9 years old. Holding a bulky tape recorder up to a speaker to capture a Van Halen marathon on local radio, I unknowingly placed myself in the middle of a decades-old format war. More important than a tinny copy of “Hot for Teacher” alone suggests, this battle had far-reaching effects for both consumer freedom and how art is made.
Now effectively useless, the cassette became the first technology since radio to challenge—with its appealing openness, cheapness, and portability—music companies’ control. By giving listeners the ability to copy and share music, tape not only entered a copyright debate that still rages, but also became a way for an entire generation to express friendship, cultural affinity, and even love.
Tape wasn’t the first home recording technology. Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph could record, but the process was unwieldy, and it was soon supplanted by Emile Berliner’s gramophone, whose flat, round discs counterintuitively crushed the music experience into a one-way relationship. That is, until the 1950s and the rise of tape.
When companies began marketing reel-to-reel recorders that used ferric oxide bonded to plastic tape, it didn’t make an immediate impact on consumers. As is the case with many new technologies, artists first realized the potential. Composer Edgar Varse once declared that he longed “for instruments obedient to my thought and whim, with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, which will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.” Varse found that instrument in tactile, easily edited, and instantly playable tape, and he would incorporate sound collages into his groundbreaking 1954 composition Deserts. His work would influence composers John Cage and Steve Reich and pop acts such as the Beatles.
“Tape used to mean a lot to me,” says Roger Miller of postpunk icons Mission of Burma, a band that used loops during early performances. “The price of quarter-inch tape made it a functional way to document my music and discover new sounds.”
As a popular format, reel-to-reel recorders never succeeded the way cassettes eventually would. Unlike the luxury “hi-fi” units associated with vinyl, cassette players were inexpensive and portable. By the mid ‘70s, the music industry began to notice that sales of cassettes had begun to outstrip the LP. Something in our relationship to music was reasserting itself.
While consumer copying is derided as near-piracy, the home taper was, and is, closer to Varse than to a crime lord. Businesses create technology, but the consumer decides what technology succeeds. From device to device, what proves successful is what lets us in. It was the cassette, after all, and not compact discs that supplanted LP sales. That fact reveals not just our love of music but also the more complex desire to learn, mimic, and add our own imprimatur to culture. For some people, making a mix tape was the simplest and most effective expression of this.
“Trying to control sharing through music,” writes Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore in his recent book Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture (Universe, 2004), “is like trying to control an affair of the heart.”
Moore argues that the mix tape spoke to our desire to be understood. It could be a love letter made of musical quotations; it could be a tool of cultural indoctrination between friends. With collaged covers, intricate labeling, and song selections whose secret meanings had to be divined by friends or paramours, mix tapes were something between folk art and a primitive network, personal and public at the same time.
In Off the Record (Rutgers University Press, 2000), historian David Morton describes home taping as “ordinary people retaking a role, however minor, in determining the ways they receive commercial musical culture’—a role he notes was challenged as early as 1982, when the record industry lobbied for surcharges on blank tapes and began to experiment with anticopying technology encoded on vinyl LPs. Counterlobbying by equipment manufacturers scuttled those plans, and a landmark court case upheld a consumer’s right to copy for personal use. The defendant in that case, settled in 1984, was Sony, which fought a coalition of Hollywood studios over the recording function on its Betamax player. Sony found itself a defendant again in 2005, this time in numerous lawsuits for including an anticopying virus on compact discs released by its music subsidiary Sony BMG. The music industry had believed the compact disc to be its savior, embracing it both for superior sound quality and because, for almost a decade, consumers could not record to it. Not until home burners became affordable did the industry renew its battle against its own customers. It’s a process that seems eerily looplike: When a format proves too popular for the music business’s 19th-century mind-set to comprehend, that format is jettisoned for a newer, more controlled one.
But even in history’s dustbin, old formats feed new art for those savvy enough to see its affordable potential. “This technology, which was considered to be very high end in the ‘70s, was available for almost nothing in the early ‘90s,” says Tom Greenwood of the improv ensemble Jackie-O Motherfucker. On the band’s recent Flags of the Sacred Harp album, tape loops, some made from eight-tracks, hover like crumbling rust behind the band’s ghostly Americana. “The constant updating of technology is an ugly facet of capitalism,” Greenwood says, “but it keeps the thrift stores and pawn shops full of great gizmos that broke musicians never could have afforded when they came onto the market.”
Before recorded music, songs were something to be learned, performed, shared, and passed along, enriching cultural knowledge in the homes of people who could not afford music in any other way. Recorded music didn’t destroy this, it only hid it, until it flourished once more with the advent of the cassette (and now digital formats). A 9-year- old recording an atrocious rock band is not a crime; it is a part of the human experience, and no format change can ever stop it.