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Welcome to the Eighties! The transition from legacy media to digital technology is beginning, and within this strange decade of mixed medium comes the rise and fall of the audio cassette magazine.
Audio cassette magazines (or ‘tapezines’) were an experimental journalist platform used to promote a music niche generally not promoted by mainstream platforms. They combined songs, news and interviews with artists and sounded much like podcasts released today. The trend began around 1981 across America, Australia, and the UK. However, the cassettes never lasted longer than a couple of years, with only one audio magazine in Manhattan outlasting the market by ten years.
Each of the magazines focused on a particular music genre or geographical location producing music.
The founding cassette magazine, Fast Forward, focused on post-punk music based on the creators’ passion and knowledge of the Punk genre beginning in the ’70s. The tapezine was available worldwide for music lovers to learn about Australia’s post-punk music. The magazine gained attraction in America, particularly by Bruce Pavitt, the founder of Sub-Pop. Inspired by Fast Forward, Pavitt created cassette compilations to accompany his magazine, promoting undiscovered talent from Pacific Northwest.
On the other side of America, a new challenge against mainstream radio began. Tell Us cassette magazine was an art project documenting New York’s downtown music. The cassette spliced together spoken word, music, and performance pieces with a visual accompaniment. It favoured avant-garde and no wave music, experimenting with different genres of sound. Tell Us’ fluidity with sound and art gave the magazine a longer lease of life, lasting for ten years before the project ended in 1993.
Unlike America and Australia’s underground music promotion, UK’s SFX Cassette Magazine was inspired by MTV’s promotion of New Wave music. An experiment in music journalism created by Hugh Salmon and Max Bell, SFX was advertised as the first audio cassette magazine ever published. However, Fast Forward had defeated SFX to the punch a year earlier.
The benefit of producing cassette magazines was the freedom to experiment with editing spoken word with music. The manual splicing and combining of interviews with sound gave a new found freedom in promoting music compared to printed press.
Bruce Milne from Fast Forward explained that he wanted to create a medium for promoting new music not restricted by the number of adjectives in the English language.
“I’d spent a number of years writing about music and you definitely get to the point when you’re writing about music that this is ridiculous, I’m trying to describe something, and I’ve sort of run out of adjectives.” – Bruce Milne, One of the two founders of Fast Forward
Likewise, radio stations had restricting guidelines on what music was appropriate to play. This meant DJ’s had to discard other lesser-known musicians who did not fit the genre. The cassette magazine combines the two forms with the freedom to play songs not advertised in mainstream media.
Plus, cassette tapes were cheap to buy!
Fast Forward managed to buy their cassettes cheaply by recycling erased pre-recorded tapes and repackaging them. Similarly, Sub Pop’s cassette compilations were said to be worth making as long as they sold 200 copies. After completing three unique cassette compilation magazines, Sub Pop decided to use cassettes to supplement their printed magazine.
However, copyright laws and the creators’ limited access to music restricted tapezines production. SFX had to fight for their right to play 20 to 30 seconds of a song by persuading the Performing Rights Society that previewing music is an excellent way to sell music.
Likewise, Bruce Milne and Andrew Maine from Fast Forward used their radio show to find and access music to play on their cassette magazine. These mainly consisted of cassette or reel to reel demos sent in by independent musicians.
Both magazines struggled to avoid record labels paranoia around home taping destroying music. The creators of Fast Forward learnt a lot about copyright infringement and avoid playing music from large record labels. Meanwhile, before SFX even hit the shops, it was under criticism for using re-useable tapes because it might encourage home taping of music. Hugh Salmon disputed the criticism insisting that listeners would view the tape as a collectable.
Salmon was right to dispute the criticism. The success of SFX led to one of the most famous interviews with Paul McCartney that now sells for profit on eBay. The recorded conversation was the first time McCartney openly talked about the murder of John Lennon. However, SFX’s reign quickly ended after only 19 issues due to the high production costs. Most likely due to their focus on mainstream New Wave music.
Sadly, the novelty of tapezine quickly wore off as mainstream printed magazines began using cassettes to promote new music. NME created a collection of cassette compilation albums to accompany their magazine. Their most famous compilation album released in 1986 (simply named C68) had huge success. But, it marked the beginning of the end to mixtape culture and sharing independent music via cassette tapes.
At the same time, publishing music magazines on cassettes began to feel limited compared to the popularity of MTV. Cassette tapes poor audio quality caused interviews and music to be challenging to listen to. It had nothing on the visual captivation and audio clarity offered by music channels on TV.
Although MTV and copyright laws brought the downfall of the tapezine, these magazines have left a mark in music journalism. Today, Tape magazines are collectable items holding a slice of authentic music history from the ’80s.