As is the way with epiphanies, someone has probably got there first.
I drove home on Friday night, pondering the car stereo as everything clicked into place. I had no idea that someone had already had a very similar idea, expanded it into a book and got it in the shelves.
And a cooler someone too: Thurston Moore. Yes, that Thurston Moore, the one from Sonic Youth.
Anyway, his book, Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, deals with the aesthetics, the nostalgia, the life-affirming, self-indulgent nature and the optimistic kindness of pouring your musical taste into 60 minutes of delicate black tangley tape, and passing it on to someone special, hoping they understand that all your Smiths and Joy Division tracks mean you’re cool, interesting and in need of a little kiss, rather than terribly depressed and socially awkward…
But expanding on the cassette culture that Generation Y and Generation X grew up surrounded by, you start to see very clear patterns, parallels and even direct copying of the cassette approach in the current explosion of social media, mashups and distribution models.
I give you, C60 = web2.0.
Where the mix-tape dominated the 80s and 90s teen experience, now you can demonstrate everything you need to display about yourself and your selection skills with your last.fm playlist. You can use iLike to broadcast your landscape of tastes and find new tastes, and you can use these playlists and tastes to navigate the swathes of potential new friends, and find whole new lists of playmates.
Or, just like tape enabled you to press play and record at exactly the right moment during the Top 40 countdown, now you have Spotify, where a little bit of effort (listening to some ads once every few songs) easily makes up for really handy access to a better back catalogue than yours.
With the advent of tape, came new possibilities for wannabes of all walks to showcase their stuff. From demos to bedroom-produced ‘radio shows’, the tape removed the financial barriers and opened up possibilities of reaching influencers (DJs, record execs, agents) with proof of talent (or not, as the case often was).
And now we have podcasts. We have blogs. We have online communities and social networks. We have online CVs and online ‘magazines’ that are produced at a fraction of the cost of old media production – even at a fraction of the cost of DIY Xeroxed fanzines.
And as with tape, sometimes the online DIY projects are for the sheer joy of themselves, of the doing, the making, the sharing, and not a platform for promotion at all – something once made possible by the low entry price of tape, and latterly by free open-source platforms and tools.
Creating for free and sharing gratis comes naturally to our generation, because this is how we have behaved musically for decades.
Distribution and copyright
As with VHS to the adult industry, the arrival of tape immediately democratised music distribution. And with the ability to replicate and share, came copyright fear and loathing. Those with the copyright, of course, were very nervous – downright angry in many cases – that a kid with a tape-to-tape stereo could make copies and distribute the originator’s work with no financial benefit ever reaching the original copyright holder – and the middlemen.
Fast forward 20 years, and you have a recording industry very late to the web party because it spent most of the early web days eye-bulgingly and vein-poppingly angry.
Control and opportunity
With tape before, and then with online file-sharing (starting with Shawn Fanning‘s Napster in 1999), those who previously held all the cards (licensees, controllers of hardware, controllers of radio waves etc) saw the challenges and panicked. And they got angry.
They didn’t want to relinquish control, and this anger clouded their vision so they didn’t see this expansion of distribution as an opportunity. They started to sue their customers. Yet here was a technical development that could turn fans into free sources of promotion; amateur bootleggers becoming ambassadors, spreading the word.
Since the latter half of the decade, we’ve started to see a tipping point in the music industry’s approach to online. It’s less of a curiosity, with the canniest players seeing iTunes and last.fm as they should be seen: a distribution network and a promotional platform that helps to push people into a state of discovery.
Thanks to the humble cassette, the general public was shown how to be generous, creative and innovative, expecting anything less in the digital age is trying to shove a cork in a bottle that’s already way out at sea.