Cassette culture was an offshoot of the mail art movement of the 1970s and 1980s. It was largely postal-based (though there were a few retail outlets, such as Rough Trade in the UK) with the artists selling or trading music on compact audio cassettes via a loose network of other artists and/or traders.
In the UK Cassette Culture was championed by marginal musicians and performers such as the insane picnic, Instant Automatons, Stripey Zebras , What is Oil? , Renaldo and the Loaf, The APF Brigade, Cleaners From Venus, Chumbawamba, and many of the purveyors of Industrial music, as well as small 'tape labels' such as Falling A Records, Deleted Records , Fuck Off Records , New Crimes Tapes , Rasquap Products , Sterile Records , Third Mind Records , and Datenverarbeitung (in Germany), who would often eschew the traditional capitalistic means of making music available (i.e., selling their work for profit), instead copying their music in exchange for "a blank tape plus self-addressed envelope", or selling cassettes at a small price to cover expenditure.
Anybody who had access to copying equipment could release a tape and publicise it in the network of fanzines and newsletters that existed around this scene. Therefore cassette culture was an ideal and very democratic method for making available music that was never likely to have mainstream appeal. Arguably, such freedom led to a large output of poor quality and self-indulgent material in the name of 'artistic creativity'. On the other hand, many people saw cassette-culture music as imaginative, challenging, beautiful, and ground breaking, standing up more than adequately beside much output released through more 'conventional' channels. Recent years have seen some reissues on CD of cassette releases, as well as long-forgotten music being made available for download on the Internet.
Cassette culture received something of a mainstream boost when acknowledged for a short while in the early 1980s in the UK by the major music press. Both the New Musical Express (NME) and Sounds, the main weekly music papers of the time, launched their own 'cassette culture' columns. Indeed even major players such as ex-Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren flirted with cassette culture when he released Bow Wow Wow's first LP (Your Cassette Pet) in a tape-only format on the EMI label.
In the United States, Cassette Culture was associated with Lo-fi music, and blossomed most strongly in the Inland Empire (California) on labels like Shrimper . Artists such as Lou Barlow, Refrigerator , Nothing Painted Blue , The Mountain Goats, and Wckr Spgt recorded numerous albums available only on cassette throughout the late 80s and well into the 90s.
Riot Grrl and other activist punk rock movements in the early 90s also spawned their own brand of anti-Capitalist tape distribution. DIY cassette labels like Pass The Buck , Octopus Head , Mindkill , and others marked a new wave of rejecting mainstream production standards and capitalist values in the music business.
Cassette culture has declined with the appearance of new technologies such as the Internet, MP3 files, file sharing, and CD burners, which have led to new methods of distribution.
See also: DIY punk ethic, Punk rock, Anarcho-punk, Post punk, Industrial music, Bullshit Detector, mix tape