American Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Mixed Tapes – The Use of Technology as Social Protest…

Mix tape culture had to start somewhere, right? Is it possible it started as protest?

Remember these? (image courtesy Wikimedia)

One of the elements in current discussion of how technology is shaping society that is currently damned near worn out and pretty regularly debunked is the idea that the Internet gives artists some significant weapon that they can use against the hegemony of cultural gatekeepers who prevent deserving (in this case one should probably think of “deserving” as a weasel word) artists from receiving their due accolades as the geniuses they clearly are. While it’s true that the occasional genius like Psy or Grumpy Cat rises from the deluge of dreck to show us the way forward, the Internet has mostly been unkind to “content creators” – as artists are known in tech jargon. The people who control the technology have been those who have profited – often wildly – from the frenzy of artistic activity littering the Web.

Hegemony strikes again, it seems. As Mr. Townshend observed: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss….

The protest against cultural hegemony, in the case of this week’s essay from The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, dates to before the rise of the Internet. In a different take on the idea of protest, author Kathleen McConnell explores the rise and evolution of DIY music culture in the Pacific Northwest in her article “The handmade tale: cassette-tapes, authorship, and the privatization of the Pacific Northwest music scene.” While previous discussion in this series have focused on specific musical genres (metal and Goth)and their elements of protest (which both use technologies as tools of protest), this week’s essay looks directly at how a particular technology (cassette recording and reproduction devices) affected the rise of a music scene.There are two elements to McConnell’s essay that deserve particular discussion. The first of these is that McConnell notes that as early as the 1970’s  the record labels were protesting against the emergence of the cassette tape – perhaps more accurately, they opposed the mass availability of blank cassette tapes. In those days of vinyl lp’s, 8 track tapes, and label produced cassettes of music, the development of high quality cassette decks with recording capability made it possible for people (known to corporate interests by the dehumanizing abstraction “consumers”) to buy a work by an artist in one medium (say, lp) and make a copy for their use (most likely to play in a cassette player in their cars) via their cassette deck. What RCA, Capitol, Atlantic, Columbia, et. al., much preferred, of course is that the consumer buy the artist’s work in multiple formats – because that would be good for the artist – and, as we all know, the record labels have a stellar record when it comes to paying their content creators.

Unfortunately, as we now know, people now no longer want to pay artists for their work. But that’s another issue – and essay.

The other issue that is important – indeed highly significant – in McConnell’s essay is how the rise of self-made cassettes contributed to the development of the independent music scene, especially in the Pacific Northwest. The evolution of  tape decks (both cassette and reel to reel that could then be dubbed onto those blank cassettes mentioned above) that allowed users to record (at first in mono, then in two track, and ultimately in as many as eight tracks) along with the rise of magazines devoted to the efforts of DIY  recording enthusiasts, led to the evolution of a music scene  not beholden – or really even interested in – ingratiating itself (at least at first) to the mainstream recording industry.

The magazines began with one called Op that featured both how to articles on recording techniques as well as reviews of DIYer efforts. At first these were wide ranging and included not simply music recordings but recording experiments of many kinds. By the time Op ended its publication, other magazines such as OptionSound Choice and Snipehunt had appeared. These later magazines focused increasingly on the music scene and celebrated the recording techniques – and resultant sound – that we now identify as “low-fi.” Musicians and fans both recorded and traded tapes. It was very much a guerrilla culture that celebrated its independence from the mainstream. Later, as musicians and recording techniques (and the magazines reporting about them) became more sophisticated, these magazines focused their efforts on supporting what we now know as “alternative” music. At the end of the 1980’s, of course, the Pacific Northwest independent music scene exploded into the national consciousness thanks to the musical scene we now know as Grunge.

But it was also what might be termed a “private” culture.  The cassette  tape DIY music culture actually didn’t seem to want to gain wide acceptance. And from that has emerged another characteristic of alternative music: the tendency of its most fanatic – and, let’s face it – snobbish fans to decry bands for “selling out” (this can happen not just to bands that sign major label record deals such as Nirvana or Soundgarden – bands were taken to task in the early days for signing with emerging independent labels such as Subpop, now a revered elder statesman of indie music). While it is possible to understand the condemnation of those who believed in the indie musician tape culture as a protest against the manufactured, plasticized superficiality of much major label pop music, as the independent scene evolved, it grew sophisticated and spawned its own record labels such as the aforementioned Subpop. So what started as protest eventually became the mainstream in the classic “successful rebel eventually becomes the establishment” pattern.

Perhaps all this begs questions: why, then, when developments in  technology (cassette recording by independent artists and an alternative media that reported about those artists) led to a musical renaissance from independent artists that ultimately forced the mainstream to take notice – and accept those artists -did the next developments (the arrival of digital recording and the ability to use the Internet to publicize artists and their music widely) fail to bring about a new wave of successful artists and another renaissance in popular music? Is this failure attributable to the phenomenon now referred to as “distributed culture“? Are there to be in future numbers of small scenes and no overarching mainstream scene? Is the mainstream gone? Is that the problem?

McConnell refers to “privatization” in her title and discusses it in terms of the power of the “author”  (the DIY recording musician) as a figure of agency – as one who could make a difference both artistically and socially because he/she was able to act independent of  a gatekeeper. In a Web 2.0 culture both mediated and controlled by those who control both use of communication technologies (as in social media) and access (as in ISP’s) to audiences, the ability to act independently of gatekeepers may be curtailed in ways that cannot be overcome. Worse yet, when those gatekeepers feel free, as I have mentioned above, to appropriate artists’ creations in flagrant violation of artists’ copyrights, an indie culture that produced a major artist like Cobain may never occur again.

That is a loss painful to consider, indeed.






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