Casette tapes

I read this report summarising MTV research findings on young people’s music ‘demands’ today.

My first reaction – as someone running a small scale label and struggling to justify the rationale for continuing at times – was a typical ‘the end of the world is nigh’ despondency.

I was initially saddened that young people would think that music should be free but that musicians should share the intimate details of their lives with them, in the hope that the youngsters took pity on them and/or respected them enough to eventually pay for some of their music.

I am not a young person. But I have been a young person. In fact I am still that same young person, just with more experience.

Once I thought about these findings for a few minutes I realised that, other than the technology, nothing much is different. You could change a few of the words in these findings and the same would be true of my generation’s relationship with music in the 1980s. When I think back to my own youth, and how I got into this lifelong addiction to music and on-going relationship with the people who make music, the terminology may be different but the concepts and the fans’ ‘needs’ are much the same.

For anyone born after 1990 it may be hard to imagine a world without the internet & smartphones (or any kind of mobile phone). No Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, LastFM, and radio was broadcast within a limited terrestrial range. If you lived in a backwater (like I did in the 1980s), you had a choice of listening to BackwaterFM.

You did however have TV that was yet to be taken over by (un)‘reality TV’ & cooking shows. And that TV (here in NZ and overseas) tended to have some kind of alternative music shows. Not sure how that happened, but they seemed to be an accepted – and popular – part of TV here (Radio With Pictures, Frenzy etc.) and overseas (SNUB TV, Rapido, The Tube etc. in the UK).

You also had a healthy music print media culture that ranged from local fanzines (often exchanged internationally by mail, many with cassettes, flexi-discs etc.) through to music weeklies (NME – which was great once, and my weekly fix) and monthlies. That was our indirect ‘direct contact’ and third-party ‘zero-distancing’ through a proxy of a music writer.

You also had the humble cassette tape. Cheap, easy to use, easy to record, copy and swap. Throughout the 80s and most of the 90s I was lucky to be the recipient of regular cassette tapes of radio shows from the UK – John Peel, Andy Kershaw on BBC, plus Peter Easton’s ‘Rock on Scotland’ and ‘Beat Patrol’ on BBC Scotland. I’d also send them copies of my favourite NZ releases – the slow and expensive equivalent of a fan today sending a DJ a Soundcloud or Bandcamp link via social media or e-mail.

Every so often I’d find myself exchanging cassette tapes of strange music with people I didn’t know in the UK and Germany. I have no idea now how I connected with these people at all without the internet, but it happened somehow. A mysterious person in England sent me some cassettes of Yeh Yeh Noh. I can’t remember how they got my address. I sent them cassettes of The Bats, The Clean etc. which I presume they also shared around their circle of friends. We exchanged cryptic smart-arse letters in which we hid behind our imaginary personas (a bit like hand-written versions of Twitter posts or Facebook status updates really). I know other music-obsessive friends had similar experiences and contacts around the world.

I would sort through those cassettes I received and every month or two compile the best on to one C90, make a few copies and hand or post these on to a few friends I knew like similar music to me. They might reciprocate with a cassette of their recent discoveries. So our music was also ‘on shuffle’ in the sense that listening was often by way of ‘mixtapes’ (and the FF>> button on the cassette deck).

I would consume every word in those NME and fanzine articles and sort out what I was interested in hearing from reading about a band and their life (‘zero-distancing’). Anything I loved from a tape I would try to track down any time I was in a record store. If I was desperate I would write overseas – to a label, a friend, to a mail-order record shop.

I can’t remember ever thinking ‘music should be free’. But clearly much of what I heard was ‘free’. “Home taping is killing the music industry” was the slogan at the time. I resented that and laughed at it because I knew that home taping and sharing those tapes was actually what helped music sell – particularly the kind of alternative music I liked that would otherwise not be heard.

So, when I look at that piece of research and think about it, really all that has changed is the technology and the speed and ease with which this all happens now.

Exchanging MP3’s (or links now rather than attached files) has replaced cassette tapes; streaming music, podcasts, online radio have extended radio’s reach; YouTube & Vimeo have become ‘on-demand’ TV music programmes with an added discovery element; blogs and music websites have all but replaced music magazines; Facebook & Twitter (& e-mail still) have replaced letter writing as a way of exchanging music.

Rather than get depressed at the ‘music should be free’ generation, I’m happy to accept that nothing much has changed really except the technology which enables the young (and older) to discover music. And it makes it easier for more people to be involved in sharing music with friends.

We still need to trust that enough people will ‘do the right thing’ and make the ethical choice and pay something for the music they love the most, as I did (and still do) when I received it ‘free’. There is a much greater opportunity for doing that directly with the band or small label now too via online stores and Bandcamp.

As musicians and labels we can help by (a) not giving up just yet, (b) still creating and releasing music that has magic, and (c) still presenting it in formats that people value and desire.