Novak Distributes Insight into Cassette Culture

By Phyllis Jeffrey - Amid debates over digital freedom and open access, the person-to-person networks of contemporary cassette circulation raise interesting questions about democracy and exclusivity. On May 26, 2016, David Novak, an associate professor of music at UC Santa Barbara, addressed the history and contemporary resurgence of cassette culture.

Novak, who has published extensively on globalization of popular music, remediation, protest culture, and social practices of listening, began his talk (entitled "The Dubbing of a New Era: Audiocassettes, Open Access and the Dissonances of Digital Democracy") by sketching the original cassette culture of the 1970s and 1980s. The cheap, easy-to-find technology provided a new, accessible and readily exploited medium for recording and distribution by individuals.

Cassette recordings provided a vehicle for self-published Soviet dissident materials known as samizdat, as well as for the covert circulation of Ruhollah Khomeini’s sermons and speeches in the build-up to the 1979 revolution in Iran. The cassette was also the medium of choice for small-scale distribution of experimental music in the U.S. and beyond. While less overtly political, this second manifestation of the cassette (on which Novak concentrated) was tied to an ethos of democracy and participation.

Conducted via either small-scale mail order (using lists curated by underground ‘zines like Sound Choice) or direct person-to-person mailing involving no exchange of money, the 1980s “mail culture” was tied to a “liberatory discourse” that stressed emancipation from the commercial music industry. This decentralized circulation, which provoked dilemmas of authorship and copyright, prefigured the digital media revolution.

Democracy through insularity

Against the backdrop of digital media, the insularity of contemporary cassette culture is striking. Cassette recordings, often made by experimental musicians and distributed to a select few, may be free—but they are not accessible to all. To make a cassette, Novak said, is to deliberately limit access. Those limitations are primarily material and technological, but also social. Objects that once embodied freedom of exchange come to be valued specifically for their scarcity.

But Novak argued that, since recordings are often subsequently digitized and shared via online networks, this insularity represents more than a mere fetishizing of cassettes as “art objects.” Rather, twenty-first century cassette culture seeks to revive peer-to-peer networks of media sharing, creating in the process a truly social media—an “Internet that could have been.” To do so, cassette-recording artists and their networks limit distribution to those in the know—an ethic epitomized by the use of barter as the dominant system of tape exchange.

Novak’s portrayal of contemporary cassette culture raises the question of whether exclusivity is always antithetical to democracy. As he put it, does “free, as in beer” ensure “free, as in speech”?

Learn more about David Novak at his UCSB faculty webpage.

This event was sponsored by Science and Technology Studies, Innovating Communication in Scholarship, and the Center for Science and Innovation Studies.