I’ve been told that it’s difficult to read some of the scans in our image library. They were not designed for that, and are really thumbnails of the collection. But I am starting to OCR them, because that also makes them easier to find online.
This is an account of the so-called “cassette revolution” that appeared in the Financial Review, which why the word marketing appears so often. As you would expect it predicts much that never came true. It’s a useful document for people who are selling cassettes 30+ years later.
It took a few hours to clean this up, and there are still errors. Such is OCR.
Cassettes spinning up a wildly different market. By Joanne Pemberton, Financial Review October 1981
Punk bands threatened to force changes in the recording industry for a time around the turn of the decade until the record companies mass marketed a suitable substitute – but the record industry never really had much to worry about. Its grasp of marketing and eventually its ability to absorb major trends, has been absolute. But now there is a chance cassettes will make life more difficult in the future. There is a new market the record industry has missed.
ROCK music released on cassettes marketed through the import record shops and mail order businesses, and promoted by word of mouth around the pubs where the bands play, is starting to make an imprint on the Australian music industry. Cassette recording and distribution groups have established themselves in the music strongholds of Sydney and Melbourne, with more in Queensland, Adelaide and Wollongong.
They are marketing local groups playing the music crowds go to hear in pubs around the suburbs and some of the best of overseas groups not available on local commercial releases.
The fact that they are not catering for the mass markets does not matter – the techniques of cheap cassette reproduction mean quality can only be maintained over short runs in any case.
Cassettes are cheap to produce in low volumes and let the marketers sell a high quality product from outside the
mainstream for a fraction of the studio price.
They are also doing very well. Allan West of Anthem Records in Sydney says independent tapes comparatively outsell everything in the shop. Virginia Moncrieff of Sydney radio station 2JJJ says tapes are now selling neck and neck with records and may even have a slight edge particularly in hot places where tapes are a more lasting buy than records.
A locally produced independent cassette retails for as little as $2.95 for four tracks, comparing favourably with singles at $2.50 for two tracks. But it is not yet what you could call an industry. The cassette makers are dealing basically in a submarket and profit is not the sole or even major motivation for an lot of the marketers.
The resurgence in interest in cassettes as a recording medium was exemplified in the marketing by ex Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McClaren of the group Bow Wow Wow as a cassette band. Last year Bow Wow Wow put out an cassette called C30 C60 C90 Go! an ode to the wonders up hometaping. With lyrics like “C30 C60 C90 Go/ Off the radio I get a constant flow/ Cos I hit it! pause it! record it and play/ Or turn it rewind it and rub it away/” the irony was not lost on EMI which released the cassette and has watched home taping cut heavily into its record sales. Bow Wow Wow’s releases have appeared on vinyl records at the same time, as even as cassette band cannot ignore the saleability of the pretty graphics on record covers.
In Britain the tape movement was spurred on by a very popular sampler of new music put together on cassette by the influential rock newspaper New Musical Express and the independent record label Rough Trade. The NME/Rough Trade C81 as it was called consisted of 24 tracks and 81 minutes of new music for about $A4.70. Although cassettes like The C81 may be cheap in the UK, by the time they reach Australia air freight and the sales tax placed on imported prerecorded tapes to protect the home market have boosted the retail price to $14.
In Australia however Terse Tapes run by Tom Ellard from his home in Sydney’s Balmoral Beach put out in 1980 a C60 guide to the best of British cassette bands for $3.00 simply by having the bands send over contributions.
The trend to cassetting in this country is not just a cultural implant. Indeed Australia has been noted for its innovation in the area. Virginia Moncrieff says an Australian parallel with Bow Wow Wow was the popular Sydney band the Sunnyboys who released their first single on both Cassette and record. The tape released through Festival even had a few more tracks on it.
“But though say 800 may be sold of this release only 400 will be taken into account by the record companies because cassettes do not count in the record charts. That is why so little emphasis is given to their marketing and quality” she says.
The most publicised tape group in Australia would have to be the alliteratively titled “tantalising taster of tape and type” Fast Forward Cassette Magazine. FF was started last December by radio announcers Bruce Milne and Andy Maine from Melbourne radio station 3RRR and has had excellent press and promising sales. According to Andy Maine Australia’s first regular cassette magazine is not losing money and is even making some though not a great deal. “We did not set out to make a fortune though obviously there is money-making potential there.”
Invitingly packaged in a slimline plastic pouch designed by Michael Trudgeon, the third member of the FF group,for $3.99 the listener/reader receives about 60 minutes of previously unreleased music interviews. chit chat and humour along with giveaways like crosswords and photocopies, an information sheet with photographs, contact addresses, lyrics and biographies.
The material is both local and overseas and issue six provides a comprehensive guide to amateur cassetting.
The main drawing point of the package however appears to be the previously unreleased recordings of bands. According to Malcolm Crane of the Sydney import record shop The Record Plant,”it is difficult to see people replay the chat sections, though you do not usually re-read printed magazine articles either. Issue six sold mainly because of the inclusion of stuff by the band Hunters and Collectors.”
Most of the new independents with limited audiences use mail ordering and manufacture as demand goes to keep costs down. Miscellaneous Musick from Wollongong founded by Christella Pink. has so far released 63 cassettes through mailorder.
In an interview with Wollongong fan magazine Check One Two she said it was the only tape library in Australia that could sell for less than $2.00. The fact that Check One Two is a “Fanzine” put out by a couple of Wollongong school kids says a lot about what marketers would call the positioning of the cassette market and the degree of credibility cassette music has won among its consumers.
Wollongong also produced the now defunct TwoTapes company but it is soon to reappear as another tape company called That’s Life which will sell C90 tapes for $5.00. Its producer Tim Vanderberg said the tapes will be of exceptionally high quality as masters will be made on metal cassettes which have a higher quality sound than vinyl.
The Sydney import record shop The Record Plant said it literally had independent tapes arriving on its doorstep all the time. One such arrival was a tape sent by the Queensland band Xiro with four tracks priced at $3.00. While The Record Plant says it knows nothing of the band. Xiro’s two tapes Religious Wars and Half the Profits sold half their stock. Malcolm Crane says this is not bad at all for an independent.
Allan West at Sydney’s Anthem Records estimates that it would cost about $85 to have a master copy of a record pressed and then about S300 to have 250 copies pressed not counting the cost of record covers, distribution and royalties to the band. The cost of a vinyl pressing becomes cheaper as more copies are produced, but tapes hold an obvious attraction for bands who can afford to record but not to put out a limited edition single.
The retailers of the new independent tapes say that while it may be easier to make money on cassette recording – all that is needed is two tape decks – they do not seem to have the selling power. “With a cassette you cannot pick it up and spin it on the record player. It just does not have the same physical presence as a record”, Allan West says.
Some tape artists have opted for the safer path of conventional distribution through a record company, but even in this case it is usually an independent. M Squared, a Sydney based independent record company is producing tapes but only as an adjunct to its vinyl releases. An M Squared recorded cassette called B Songs by Mark 2 and released through Underworld Tapes is a professionally produced, eight track cassette retailing at $2.95. Much of the M Squared material however is distributed by mail order.
Similarly in Adelaide Girl/Boy. a recently formed tape company will have its releases produced, distributed and promoted through larger concerns like the independent record company Missing Link in Melbourne.
Michael Green of Gaslight Records in Melbourne pointed out that small independent cassettes like M Squared sold well in the shops though he said this was mainly due to a loyal clientele. Allan West said “We only stock the local cassettes, the ones that are not available on albums. We used to have no tapes at all but its now grown to about twenty different titles. “The market for cassettes is expanding slowly and from the producers point of view a week or running off 60 copies of a cassette has got to be cheaper than vinyl pressings.”
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the independent tapes is their marketing. In England. Bow Wow Wow released a tape called Your Cassette Pet in an cute little fliptop pack. The NME Rough Trade C81 also had a nod in the direction of attractive packaging with the inclusion of a 32 page C81 owner’s manual.
Bruce Milne of Fast Forward believes that the reason that cassettes have traditionally had such poor sales in the past was their boring packaging. “We thought, why not make it exciting. There are so many things you can do. So we went to plastic: and tin factories and even thought of putting the cassette in a sardine tin. “We are always thinking of changing and at the moment I would like to develop the booklet and include more photos and make il an entity in itself.” Andy Maine says that the end of the year will see a longer FF with a corresponding price rise.
Tom Ellard of Terse Tapes however believes the packaging of cassette should not be an issue at all, conceeding though that consumers love running their fingers through the package.
In the past Terse Tapes have been sparsely presented in sandwich sized plastic bags containing two photocopied information sheets. Ellard has now reverted to the traditional casssette box which other independents use.
Christella Pink says that Miscellaneous Musick is a tape company because the low costs “allow greater freedom with art and music.” To some in the tape fraternity however, the lack of profit geared constraints has meant that the output of the independent tape companies tends towards the esoteric and elite.
FF has however broadened its scope and plans to include in future issues recordings and graphics by the English band The Cure, and roc German electronic outfit Kraftwerk. Both bands were impressed with FF product and according to Milne “Jumped at the chance to contribute.”
FF’s emergence into the mainstream has been due, according to Tom Ellard, to it being bland enough lo go into every home, a point that Andy Milne agrees with. Lauded by the American and English rock press FF received perhaps its highest accolade when it was given a plug by Ian Meldrum on the ABCs Countdown.
The changes in music retailing that these cassette marketers foreshadow imply that recordings on vinyl or tape are unlikely to become more homogenous. Certainly for sections of the market flexibility, low overheads and the ability to move very quickly are becoming more important. The result may be than the music industry itself will end up a very different beast.