|home | exhibitions | interviews | features | profiles | webprojects | archive|
Jerry Kranitz on Cassette Culture and the pre-Internet Age
interview by Nigel Ayers
In the days before the internet made the entire past, present and future of music entirely accessible on your mobile phone, the way to find adventurous music wasn’t really in the records shops - or even on occasional surfacings on John Peel’s radio show - you’d have to seek it out, to write to addresses that appeared in the back of records, cassettes, music papers, in music fanzines. You’d have to make the effort, buy stamps, and write away to find out.
After a lot of that kind of haphazard and fairly esoteric research, from the early 80s onwards, a stream of surprising, innovative and creatively packaged home produced music began to appear in my post bag - fascinating & inspiring people I probably would never have found out about any other way, through what has become known as “cassette culture”. Some of them went on to get famous, most of them didn’t, that was never the point. It was by and large anti-commercial and experimental, informal, inclusive, supportive networks – spanning 3 or 4 continents (including a few people here in Cornwall). People from different backgrounds and motivations, exploring what art & music could be –often on the very cheap, with limited resources, more of a human relational thing than anything to do with stardom or bourgeois notions of talent or virtuosity.
The German record label 'Vinyl on Demand' has just released a very well researched book from a US based historian of that “culture”. It comes packaged as a desirable hardback book with a double CD “Cassette Culture - Homemade Music and the Creative Spirit in the Pre-Internet-Age” It was a peculiar moment in musical history - an important moment that up till now, hasn’t really been properly documented. So, I got to interview the author and compiler of this book, Jerry Kranitz.
We’re living in interesting times – with this pandemic - and one of the effect of this crisis’s people are being forced to reassess the ways they interact with other people in the world, and especially the way the approach their art forms. It seems like everybody is working from home now, and relying heavily on parcels through the post. People are getting into DIY and valuing craft – to me it seems that ethos of valuing human relationships, rather than cash, that went into cassette culture has become very timely.
What thoughts do you have on this?
Even prior to the pandemic I had seen people coming together in a good old DIY fashion. Regardless of any deserved criticism, social media has been a valuable forum for people of like interests to communicate and collaborate. For example, the Facebook ‘Electronic Cottage’ group consists of both veteran homemade artists from the 1980s and young bucks. I’ve watched in delight as the members have collaborated on numerous projects. Members regularly post photos of mail art they have received from each other. In the case of this particular group, much of the camaraderie has been due to the efforts and enthusiasm of Hal McGee, and in this forum it has worked like a champ.
But YES, the pandemic has influenced some projects. Only this week a call went out for a ‘mail art/music exchange project, which will be conducted completely through postal mail’. And in late April the Harsh Reality label released a fantastic compilation called ‘I Got The Corona Virus-19 Blues’.
The ‘interesting’ times we live in are riddled with negativity and division. Here in the U.S. I sometimes feel like I live in doppelganger worlds. But people are just so amazingly CREATIVE, and they always have been. DIY… the Network of creators… they keep right on making stuff and interacting with one another to do so. That’s what keeps me from getting discouraged. That’s what keeps me optimistic and believing there’s hope.
Can you tell us a little about what prompted you to write the book?
From 1998-2016 I published a music zine, which still exists in static form at Aural-Innovations.com. In the early years I noticed a pattern among several of the artists I was interviewing. People talking about making cassette tapes in the 1980s and 90s, and a network of trading and collaboration. I started investigating, hurled myself down a homemade music/cassette culture rabbit hole, and eventually realized that there was a story to tell and I felt compelled to tell it.
Specifically, that the cassette culture network that emerged from the late 1970s is A) a less than fleshed out component of the larger post-punk story, and B) cassette culture is part of the ongoing story of 20th independence in the arts (e.g., Dada, Fluxus, Mail Art). From the beginning my goal was to approach the project as social history.
I spent from 2007-2017 researching and writing the book. I was convinced all that time that someone would beat me to the punch. Because no one, to date, has tackled this story from a comprehensive historical standpoint. There were a number of approaches I could have taken. History can only be fully understood when broken down into components. I’m sure there will be lots of criticism that boils down to how I could have approached the story. I hope my book inspires others to tell the tale from other angles.
“Cassette Culture” can mean a few things. For example there is the page on Wikipedia, which lists cassette focused labels such as my own Sterile Records, Third Mind, etc. In a sense though, these – or small, often cottage industry labels such as ROIR, Audio Arts, Touch, Industrial Records, Staaltape, - though drawing from “cassette culture” might not be representative of the more free – social relational phenomenon you concentrate on in the book...
I do think these labels are part of the story, and I get deep into cottage industry labels in the book. Distribution, getting work out there, is a fascinating topic. It is TOUGH. In the book I talk about the Rough Trade ‘Cartel’. Heck, even a company like Rough Trade couldn’t get very far attempting a mutually beneficial collaboration for the purpose of creating a distribution network. Industrial Records certainly seemed to achieve something more than cottage industry success. They were a key influence, model, and enabler for a lot of individuals who genuinely did operate on their own as usually one person operations. One thing I learned from researching and writing this book is that there really is no way to run a label and not have it cost you without engaging in some measure of business savvy capitalism.
There have been other books about “cassette culture” eg “Cassette Mythos” (1992), Thurston Moore “Cassette Culture”(2004), John Z Komurki “Cassette culture” (2019) – the ultimate guide to the Tapenaissance”. What are your impressions of these books & do they cover similar or different territory to your own?
'Cassette Mythos' is the only book that has targeted the cassette culture that is the focus of my book. The difference is that while my book is a history written from decades of hindsight, 'Cassette Mythos' was a collection of essays by participants in the hometaper network detailing how to get involved in the cassette scene, how to make your own cassettes, case studies, personal reflections, and strategies. Though published in 1992, the essays had actually been written in the mid-late 1980s, precisely when the scene was in full bloom. Cassette Mythos editor Robin James wrote the Forward to my book.
Thurston Moore’s Cassette Culture has zero relation to the subject of my book. As his title – ‘Mix Tape: The Art Of Cassette Culture’ – indicates, it’s all about mix tapes. I made loads of mix tapes in the 1970s, all 'Best Of' collections from my record albums. Perfectly valid use of cassettes. But they were not the original recordings by homemade musicians and audio artists that are at the heart of my book.
This is the first I have heard of the Komurki book. It looks like it’s about the resurgence of the cassette tape. But there may be some history in it. I just ordered it. Thanks for the pointer!!
Apparently cassettes are suddenly fashionable again, more people are buying them than at any time since the 80's – what are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
I’ve seen this in a big way. Lots of them are coming from younger artists who must have been very young or not even born yet in the 1980s. I’ve not questioned any of them about it, but I suspect it’s a nostalgia thing? Just like the return of vinyl? The guy who runs a little independently owned record store in my town stocks lots of them produced by local/regional artists and labels. He knows me as the guy who likes ‘weird stuff’ and contacts me when he gets in interesting tapes. I gobble them up.
Speaking for myself, I like that these folks are producing cassettes instead of what would probably have been CDRs. I really hate CDRs. I’ve got nearly 40 year old cassettes that still play fine. But I have loads of CDRs from over the years that died ridiculously fast. And I never gave up vinyl. I’m thrilled that vinyl and tapes are back. That’s what I grew up with and that’s what I love.
Cassette artists and labels often took great care in the packaging of their releases, with cassettes frequently presented as full blown works of art. The ornate and often confounding packaging was done in the spirit of the mail art movement. Could you give us examples of some of your favourites?
This topic deserves an oversized picture book of its own. And it gets back to what I said earlier about how people are just so darn creative! I could go on and on but I’ll give a few of the more elaborate examples…
James Hill, in a 1986 issue of 'Sound Choice' magazine, wrote an article about creative mailers. He describes spotting a two-foot disengaged doll leg lying in a pile of trash on a street corner. He grabbed it and when he got home found that a cassette fit perfectly into the upper portion of the leg, and then filled the rest with additional goodies such as puffed yellow corn, buttons, and an assortment of other mail art.
'Popular Soviet Songs and Youth Music' by Soviet France was a 2-tape set that came packaged in an engraved handmade ceramic container, wrapped in a screen-printed mock American flag with hammer & sickles instead of stars, a bird feather from the shores of the Irish Sea, and a fold-out info sheet with instructions for use and other artwork.
While I was researching the book I read a lot of hysterical reviewer impressions of these packages. Here's one from a 1984 issue of Op: SHUT UP! Cassettes: A new concept in low-budget mail-order tape art: Piece O’Tape. It’s almost perfect – short, sweet, light, interesting, inexpensive to send and manufacture. Unfortunately rather difficult for me (with 6 thumbs) to handle the little bitty limp ribbon of cassette tape 'one or two feet long', elaborately wrapped in paper, plastic, tin foil, more paper, more tin foil, with little smart-assed messages on each layer. I got it to play once, it was at an odd speed. Just the thing for cryptologists.
I’m interested also in relation to the new interest in craft based music objects - lathe-cut records and what looks like a mini-revival in home produced CDRs (TQ zine for example). Any thoughts?
I’ve seen a few of the lathe-cut records. They’re interesting, and more of a personal thing for the artist. The couple I’ve got, the only way to get them was directly from the artists, so there was that crucial connection. As for the mini-revival in home produced CDRs, I wasn’t aware the darn things had gone away!
There is a large part of your book dedicated to what “cassette culture” is NOT – could you give us a potted idea of the various definitions you are using here?
I was very concerned about ‘definition’, hence the introduction having 'What is this book about and what is this book NOT about' sections. I wanted to be clear that my focus is about the Network… the pre-internet Social Network… and how the participants functioned within it, not having the benefit of email and uploads/downloads. And it was a genuine social network for so many. I was concerned that it be clear I was focusing on how the participants discovered each other and communicated via small press publications/zines, through the postal service, traded, collaborated, and, to the extent that any of them cared to, spread the word about their creations.
I touched on the what the book is NOT about responding to your question about Thurston Moore’s 'Cassette Culture Mix Tapes' book. I’m not talking about mix tapes or demos, but recordings of original works that in most cases were created in the artists homes. I also wanted to be clear that this is in no way an index of artists. I made zero attempt at being comprehensive as regards the participants. All individuals I interviewed or in any way included are ‘representative’.
Having said that, I did attempt to interview artists in different countries. At the time I’m responding to these questions the book is only starting to trickle into people’s hands. A couple of people noted that it seems Americentric. That’s fair, and probably because most publications from the 1980s available to me were American. But I do attempt to tell the story from a global perspective.
VOD 158: JERRY KRANITZ / VARIOUS: Cassette Culture - Homemade Music. Available from https://www.vod-records.com/