Originally published on the (now defunct) Snatch Tapes website in the early 2000s.
unleashed in its wake a wave of Do It Yourself (DIY) creativity.
Recording and releasing records was no longer under the sole control of
the record industry. Now anyone could (to paraphrase Sniffin' Glue)
learn three chords, form a band, and if they could grub together a few
hundred quid put out a single. Thousands did just that, and with John
Peel willing to play many of the records on his late night Radio 1 show,
and Rough Trade in Notting Hill happy to distribute them a whole new DIY
scene began to flourish.
Punk though was about brevity; the kind of soloing associated with
progressive bands like Yes was anathema, and short and sharp was the
preferred cut. Quirky and playful as many of the bands played on John
Peel were, they stuck pretty tightly to the orthodoxies of the
traditional verse/chorus song structure, and the classic line up of
guitar, bass and drums. Punk was a breath of fresh air after the years
of self-indulgent excess, but in its way it was also quietly
Here and there in the cracks and on the margins another tendency was
taking form, that of DIY electronic and experimental music. Influenced by
a range of sources including Kraftwerk, Eno, the Radiophonic Workshop
and Throbbing Gristle, young men (and some young women) up and down the UK began fiddling with
old tape machines, oscillators, and radios; plugging the output into the
input of any piece of circuitry they could lay their hand on just to
see what might happen.
The blips, bloops and cacophonous sonorities produced by such antics
didn't sit well with most of the new independent labels, and the few
hundred quid needed to put out a record oneself was often a few hundred
quid more than most DIY experimenters had (not surprising as many were
still at school or college), and so people began looking for another
medium on which to release their musical excursions. The answer turned
out to be the humble cassette tape.
Cassettes had been around since the1960s and had with vinyl been a
form of mainstream music distribution since the 1970s. The cassette
though was always considered sonically and aesthetically inferior to
vinyl. Despite all studio recordings being made on tape (albeit it 1/4
inch or multi-track tape running at much higher speeds) a cassette tape
was considered by many to be a cheap copy of the 'real thing'. That you
could record tapes at home yourself somehow distanced them from the
authority of a recording made in a studio and then cut and pressed in a factory. However by the mid
1970s the quality of cassette machines had improved enormously, and
though they would never rival the frequency range of vinyl they offered a
good quality sound recording and playback medium.
Prior to punk, bands had used cassette to make 'demo' tapes that
they would then hawk round the major record labels in a bid to get a
recording deal. Few though considered their tapes to be the finished
item; they were rough drafts waiting for the major studio magic to be
performed on them so they could be turned into shiny records.
For those on the musical margins the perceived disadvantages of the
cassette arguably made it a natural medium. Using cassettes meant there
were minimal mastering or printing costs (the tape cover being often as
not a photocopied or hand made collage). One could duplicate a handful
of cassettes at home or if there was more demand nip round to somewhere
like Better Badges,
which had a high, speed machine and make 50 copies. Tapes could be
easily sent in jiffy bags through the post. A tape could be recorded at
the weekend and then be winging its way around the country by Wednesday
of the following week.
Word of mouth was all-important and a small network of people
swapping or selling tapes soon emerged. With the exception of Rough
Trade, most record shops refused to stock DIY cassettes, and so
distribution was almost exclusively by post. Picking up on the
burgeoning scene the main music papers, NME and Sounds began to run
cassette friendly features, namely Garageland and DIY Corner, which added a further spur to activity. A number of cassette labels appeared including Deleted Records,
Fuck Off Records, and of course my own Snatch Tapes. Most 'labels' though were
run from a bedroom or squat and so somewhat lampooned the very idea of
the corporate branded company. Radio silence however was maintained, as
DIY tapes were never considered 'proper' releases and as such denied
airplay even, on the John Peel show.
So would the cassette fundamentally alter the mechanics of the music
industry? For a short wishful thinking utopian period in 1980 it looked
like a possibility that the tape might just tilt the balance of power
in favour of both the musician and the listener. Cassettes though would
be a victim of their own success. Soon there were so many releases each
week that Garageland and DIY Corner could have been expanded to fill
several pages in each music paper. Given the reliance on major label
advertising this was never going to happen. Cassettes were an
alternative economy that didn't ultimately suit labels, record shops or
the music press.
In the UK the DIY cassette peaked sometime in 1982 and slowly
slipped (or should that be seeped) back into the margins from whence it
had come. During the next decade the tape though became an established
format for industrial music. Just as industrial pioneers Throbbing
Gristle were going their separate ways in 1981, a number of young artists
began putting out their own industrial music cassettes.
By the late 1990s it was to be another DIY revolution that would
rekindle interest in the cassette. Forgotten except by the keenest of
aficionados most DIY tapes were by now lost or sitting unloved in old
shoeboxes in attics. The Internet though allowed people to set up
discussion forums, blogs and websites in which information could be
easily shared across the globe about these obscure recordings. Gradually
a number of recordings began to be re-issued on both vinyl and CD. The
label, which has undertaken the most comprehensive re-issue programme,
is Vinyl on Demand (VOD).
VOD also has an online gallery with a large selection of cassette
covers and artwork from the period. A number of blogs such as Mutant Sounds, No Longer Forgotten Music and Thing on the Doorstep continue to unearth and digitise old tapes indeed not since the early 1980s has so much tape music been readily available.
The above piece originally written in the early 2000s seems from a time almost as far away as the original DIY cassette scene itself. Since writing it almost everything of merit from the original Snatch Tapes and indeed every other tape label has been re-issued, firstly on CD and then perhaps ironically on the resurgent vinyl format. Vinyl on Demand in particular have through a series of box sets and single LPs released works by many of the people who appeared on Snatch Tapes such as Alien Brains, Sea of Wires, Storm Bugs. The cassette itself has even had a resurgence both as a tangible alternative to the ubiquitous MP3 and once again as a financially affordable alternative to the increasingly expensive vinyl format. Mutant Sounds has long since stopped after a period of public aural education by means of posting on a daily basis untold gems from the musical margins. An association with the guys behind the label even led to not a re-issue but the release of new material in the form of the Hollow Gravity LP in 2012.