Unspooled: How the Cassette Made Music Shareable - Rob Drew. Durham: Duke University Press, 2024.

By Linnea Semmerling

Unspooled – the latest publication in Jonathan Sterne and Lisa Gitelman’s sign, storage, transmission series with Duke University Press – insightfully unravels the social construction of the cassette with an emphasis on its creative appropriation and decade-long shaping by the Anglo-American indie music scene. Rob Drew, indie mix taper and communication scholar with a focus on everyday deployments of music technologies, traces the history of the cassette from the 1960s up until today, drawing on the accounts of inventors and manufacturers, record industry representatives and the national regulatory authorities as well as music practitioners and their interpretive communities, including label operators, record shop owners, radio DJs, critics, and fans. Luckily, Drew refrains from artificially defining or demarcating indie rock as a musical genre but embraces the historical and contemporaneous connections between indie and the cassette underground, (post-)punk, grunge, hip-hop, dance, pop, and others.

The first chapter situates the birth of the cassette against the background of a small but ambitious community of adventurous open-reel home tapers. These first-generation recordists brought tape into the post-war US and UK living rooms, in alignment with their already considerable ambitions of copying and sharing them with a growing network of taping enthusiasts. As the unwieldy open reels and expensive machines made home taping a rather exclusive affair for affluent men, and as copyright regulations were still in their infancy, the home tapers could exchange their recordings of everyday sounds, opera broadcasts on the radio, or classical symphonies on vinyl relatively undisturbed. This changed when Philips introduced the Norelco Carry-Corder to the US, a pocket-sized, battery-operated, lightweight player-recorder with cassettes that were “built to record” (p. 39). The device quickly caught on, which brought the record industry to the scene. Drew unravels how their campaign for copyright protection of recorded music and the imposition of royalties on the sale of audio tapes and recorders co-created the public image of the cassette as a cheap, flimsy, and delinquent technology.

In chapter two, the independent music scene stands ready to counter the lobby of the music industry and the national policymakers. Drew sketches the musical landscape of the 1980s with a focus on British and American indie and elaborate consideration of their forerunners within the punk movement and the cassette underground, unraveling the practical and symbolic value these scenes attributed to the cassette, such as its qualities of intimacy, community, and accessibility. In his analysis, he never considers just the cassettes themselves, but their packaging, their tape inserts, the letters that accompanied them through the mail, or the reviews that were written about them in ominous zines. He also emphasizes that most of what was interesting about the introduction of the cassette to music making and music distribution happened at the local level: at home, at the concert, or at the record store far away from any cultural metropolis.

The third chapter adds music journalists into the mix as gatekeepers, specifically radio DJs working at college radio stations and cassette critics writing for mainstream music magazines or alternative zines. In the locally-grounded cassette communities Drew described in the previous chapter, these media fulfilled a crucial connecting function. However, it was difficult for them to fulfil this function when the cassette moved from the role of demo tape circulated among music industry peers in order to obtain a record contract to becoming a musical release in its own right. As the distinction between demo and finished product started to blur, critics and radio DJs found it increasingly difficult to keep up and meaningfully fulfil their gatekeeping function within the indie community. Drew argues that these challenges contributed to a split in the indie scene of the 1990s, with a more mainstream-oriented branch in which cassettes played a subservient role to vinyl and the cd and a more autonomous branch that worked from home and embraced the cassette release with all its consequences.

In the fourth chapter, Drew reminds the reader that the indie cassette did not necessarily work against the traditional music industry, where musicians often made and exchanged tapes without losing sight of their ultimate goal of producing a vinyl record. Tape remained the second choice to vinyl and cd for aesthetic reasons, such as fidelity and its tendency toward distortions, as well as for practical reasons, such as its susceptibility to malfunction and the general difficulty of locating a song. The latter implied that a cassette release could not be featured on the radio without considerable technical difficulty. And how conducive cassettes were to small-scale reproduction is in contrast to how difficult they were to reproduce for mass markets. Despite these practical challenges, a considerable number of indie musicians still opted for the cassette as a medium of first release and sometimes even exclusive release throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Drew ascribes this to the symbolic value of the cassette, in particular its egalitarian and communitarian ethos of sharing original music and concert experiences, as well as to the practical value of self-sustainability in music production and distribution.

In chapter five, Drew focuses on the unauthorized, secondhand distribution of cassettes in relation to legal discourses as well as to indie’s and pop’s musical aesthetics. While the music industry’s allegation that “home taping is killing music” weighed heavily over the past chapters, Drew now presents the reader with a 1989 report of the United States Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, which quite contrarily asserts the stimulative effects of home taping. Drew ascribes these effects to “re-recording,” a specific form of home taping that consists of the duplication of commercial music from records or from the radio. The emerging “secondhand tapes” can be full albums as well as compilations. Drew claims that “second-hand taping and tape trading were indeed, as supporters liked to say, ‘stimulative,’ but what they stimulated was not just music purchases, but musical discoveries, allegiances, collaborations, and communities” (p. 105). He proceeds to take the reader on a ride through the musical histories of punk, hip-hop, and dance music based on access provided by secondhand tapes. Across all of these genres, duplicates of hard-to-get albums and late-night radio shows were required to make musical ideas available on demand and circulate among like-minded musicians so they could eventually evolve into new musical ideas and incarnations. Drew emphasizes that this has had a significant effect on indie’s historiography and canon building, as musical discoveries often stretched across decades. He emphasizes that the obscurity and rarity of the master tapes added to the allure and symbolic value of the music on them.

Chapter six turns to the “storied ritual” of mix taping by specifying its meaning in indie culture – as opposed to hip-hop – based on a discourse analysis of musical outlets as well as literary fiction. Drew argues that indie’s mix tape often functioned as a gift among friends or lovers, elevating the status of the music from a commodity to a meaningful, affective gesture. The labor that went into the production of the tape was a sacrifice for the other person as well for the higher good of the music. Drew suggests that the ideal of the hand-produced tape and its hand-to-hand circulation became particularly relevant in the 1990s when indie and grunge became more entangled with mainstream music: musicians welcomed the way in which the inclusion of their songs on a mixtape allowed them to symbolically transcend the commodity status. This was when the term “mixtape” was coined and it may also have helped to pave the way for the acceptance of home-recording as a legitimate practice.

The conclusion takes a quick glance at the way the cassette has been used since digital formats have taken over, unraveling its intertwinements with digital music cultures and the variety of revivals that it is said to have had since. It is the perfect conclusion to Drew’s history of the cassette as “the other,” the second-rate alternative to vinyl, to the cd, or to the mp3-file, the underground to the aboveground, the cheap to the valuable, the lo-fi to the hi-fi, the fickle to the faithful, the indie to the mainstream, the illicit bootleg to the licensed release. While the dualisms at the heart of this relational history of the cassette sometimes run the danger of simplification, Drew’s meaningful selection of examples and his concise descriptions of them manage to create ever more nuances among these supposed opposites. Drew is a great storyteller, who – despite some antiquated imagery and questionable quotation choices (see for example p. 37 and p. 39) – manages to convey the zeitgeist without falling prey to the technological determinism, the fetishization, and the nostalgia that still characterize so much of the cassette scholarship available today.

Sadly, Unspooled also misses a chance. From the outset of the book, Drew makes himself known as a tape enthusiast who is about to give the reader his “own very partial account” on independent rock music scenes (p. 8). This positioning made me hope for a more critical account of the intertwinement of the scene’s demographic structure and its exclusionary social dynamics despite its propagation of democracy, egalitarianism, and accessibility. While Drew is certainly aware of the patriarchal structure and misogynist tone of the white male-dominated tape culture, this does not keep him from reproducing misogynist stereotypes (see p. 37) and limiting his discussion of exclusion mechanisms to a few paragraphs dedicated specifically to women musicians, such as “Contested Canons and Grrrl Tape Trading”, which introduces Tobi Vail as Curt Cobain’s girlfriend (pp. 121-126). I believe the book could have done better, particularly because Drew does show awareness and sensitivity when he analyzes how the ad-hoc unbureaucratic organizational culture of the cassette scene contributed to the normalization of a culture of sexual assault that eventually led the label Burger Records to shut down in 2020. The conclusion of the historian cannot be to just leave this aspect of cassette culture to the past but to actually dig deeper into the power relationships at work in these organizational and cultural practices.

Even with room for improvement, Unspooled offers an immense contribution to cassette scholarship that will appeal to earwitnesses from the analog era as well as to curious digital natives. I trust that the book will be relevant to historians and sociologists of music as well as to scholars of cultural studies, media studies, and science and technology studies.