The Threat of the Audio Cassette

Popzazzle | Tuesday, 6 April 2021 |

"Never let it be said that contempt is blind to status."


Audio cassettes

Remember audio cassettes? They seem beyond harmless today, but forty years ago they were considered by some to be a global catastophe waiting to happen. Yes, back in 1981, the British Phonographic Industry believed that these inert-looking and actually rather pretty bits of plastic and tape had the power to destroy the music business...

Cassette tapes had been in the consumer domain for about ten years by then. But until the late 1970s the readily available consumer recording equipment had been poor. Result? Even though consumers could technically copy commercial vinyl records onto cassette tapes and pass them on to their friends, the quality was not typically good enough to serve as much more than a taster.

In 1975, if you wanted to enjoy the full, high-fidelity effect of Something For The Girl With Everything by Sparks, you had to buy the record. The danger of piracy was low. But by the dawn of the 1980s, cassette recording equipment was a very different proposition. Rather than simply sitting next to the stereo system and recording through a crummy, built-in microphone, the cassette recorder was now an integrated stereo component.

Sound no longer had to travel through air to get to the cassette, losing most of its fidelity in the process. That sound was now passing directly from the record player's needle, through high quality circuitry, to the surface of the magnetic tape. The process was close to lossless in terms of frequency retention.

Only the quality of the audio tape now placed a limit on the accuracy of reproduction. And audio tape was getting much, much better too. By 1981, it was possible for consumers to buy a tape for less than £1, which could faithfully "pirate" an album that cost £5. The economy of that was seen as an immense threat to the music biz, and the British Photographic Industry decided it was time to take drastic action.

In morbid fear of escalating piracy, the BPI came up with a highly controversial combative measure. Many would prefer to use the word stupid. The idea was to hammer the public with a slogan that said:
"Home Taping is Killing Music - And It's Illegal"
The actual design is depicted in this illustrated Home Taping retrospective. It was a double-whammy, using two separate threats to deter the public from pirating records. Not only were we going to forever lose touch with Bucks Fizz and Bad Manners - we were all gonna jolly well get our collars felt as well.

The controversy lay less in the slogan itself, and more in the means by which the BPI planned to deliver it. This slogan was not going to be going out on audio cassette packaging. It was going to be going out on record sleeves. That's right. The people the music industry was about to warn not to steal, were the ones actually buying the records.

Given the incentives, there wasn't really much other choice. Manufacturers of blank cassettes had nothing to gain by warning customers not to "home tape". They could only lose. So it was left to the record companies to disseminate the message, with additional support from TV advertising.

The idea quickly bombed, and a lot of record companies refused to have anything to do with it. The savvy labels not only realised that shouting "don't be a thief!" at their paying customers would be biting the hand that fed them - they also realised that fans of the artists wanted the official product with a nice picture on the cover. Not a copy on an anonymous tape. Back then, you couldn't just go on Google and download a hundred photos of your favourite pop stars. The record sleeves were part of a very limited realm of visual merch. That visual element still had a lot of power in 1981.

But above all, the cost of the cassettes prevented Joe Public and his dentist's butcher from flooding the neighbourhood with pirate albums. A tape was cheaper than an album. But it was still an overhead. No one but a major bootlegger was going to pay for a thousand blank cassettes. Private individuals were going to buy three or four. And analogue copying wasn't self-spawning as it is in the digital domain. It took time to record every single copy.

Those limitations prevented the kind of mass redistribution that digital transfer later permitted. Music didn't die out in the 1980s, after all.

It's interesting to observe how forty years have trivialised the BPI's concerns about piracy, and to note that it was actually corporations, not consumers, who eventually did the real damage to music industry profits.

One can even feel mildly disgusted by the fact that that the innocent, record-buying public were treated as villains, when the powerful corporations who later took nearly all of the profit out of recording are today greeted with a shrug. Never let it be said that contempt is blind to status.