Scapegoats. The Music Industry’s War on Cassettes

by Dave Marsh

“It (the music industry) is in real peril now and if we don’t do something about it, running a record company in this country will become so unprofitable that it just won’t be worth taking risks with new acts. It will become stodgy, boring and dead,” said Peter Scaping of the British Phonographic Institute.

Sounds like a cliché doesn’t it? It is. Scaping spoke in 1978. He was talking about cassettes. This was back when the international slogan was “Home taping is killing music.” The opposite was actually happening. Mix tapes probably sold almost as many records as radio airplay over the past 20 years. Today, music retailers complain much more often that the labels are killing off the cassette, which is being done openly and deliberately, than about file-sharing or even CD burning.

There are a bunch of reasons why the record industry wants to kill the cassette. Dual inventories are expensive. Get rid of cassettes, and you’d only need one kind of manufacturing facility, too. There’s also the notion, I suspect, that people with their music collections on cassette might start replacing them when cassettes become hard to find.

The ulitmate reason may involve class. People with money have bought CDs almost exclusively for the past decade. Like me, they came to hate cassettes: It’s a pain in the ass to find a song let alone a specific musical passage on a cassette, they’re impossible to store sensibly, they snap, stretch and otherwise break and if you dub onto them, the variables between any two decks and the signal transmission breakdown leaves you with noise and blur.

But cassette machines are still way cheaper than CD players, blank cassettes can be reused, if you make a mistake while dubbing a mix tape you don’t have to start over with a fresh piece of media, and you don’t have to worry whether something burned on your machine will play on your friend’s. If you don’t have a lot of money, cassettes are much more user-friendly.

Cassettes, even pre-recorded ones from the major record companies, are also less expensive. The gigantic unspoken factor in all of the battles over music is the skyrocketing price of records.

The difference between swapping cassettes mixes–which is what was supposed to be killing the record biz in ’78–and file-sharing isn’t much. “File-sharing is a net positive technology,” according to Aram Sinnreich author of the Jupiter Media research report that showed file-sharers are 41 percent more likely to *increase* purchases of commercial CDs.

File-sharers are beginning to learn what it really costs to download, too: “[F]ree doesn’t mean free,” Sinnreich points out. “It takes time spent, energy spent, hassle, disappointing results. That’s the kind of currency that teenagers have but that people with a day job don’t have.”

Or as my friend Lou Cohan wrote when he sent me 20 beauteous versions of “People Get Ready”: “Searching for, downloading, listening to, and finally, burning mp3 files is not a pleasurable experience.”

I hope the damn thing plays on my machine.


1. “Cold Woman Blues” / “99 Blues” / “Outside Woman Blues,” Blind Joe Reynolds (from a CD burned by a friend of newly discovered tracks-plus the well-known “Outside”–by a country bluesman so great a friend commented, “He sounds like Robert Johnson’s lost brother.”
Very very scratchy 78 sources-try http://www.tefteller.com/html/intro.html for your own sample)

2. Return of a Legend, Jody Williams (Evidence)

3. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)

4. Become You, The Indigo Girls (Epic)

5. Here Comes the New Folk Underground, David Baerwald (Lost Highway advance)

6. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (Muscletone advance)

7. The Byrds Play Bob Dylan (Columbia Legacy advance)

8. Anthony Smith (Mercury Nashville advance)

9. Plenty Good Lovin’, Sam Moore (Swing Café, UK import)

10. “Float Away (All of the Streets Are Lonely),” Marah (E Squared single)

Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net

Dave Marsh’s Previous DeskScan Top 10 Lists:

May 6, 2002

April 30, 2002

April 22, 2002

April 15, 2002

April 9, 2002

April 2, 2002

March 25, 2002

March 18, 2002

March 11, 2002

Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

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