Home Taping Is Killing Music: When the Music Industry Waged War on the Cassette Tape in the 1980s, and Punk Bands Fought Back

The first time I saw the infamous Skullcassette-and-Bones logo was on holiday in the UK and purchased the very un-punky Chariots of Fire soundtrack. It was on the inner sleeve. “Home Taping Is Killing Music” it proclaimed. It was? I asked myself. “And it’s illegal” a subhead added. It is? I also asked myself. (Ironically, this was a few months before I came into possession of my first combination turntable-cassette deck.)

Ten years and racks and racks of homemade cassette dubs on my shelves later, music seemed to be doing very well. (Later, by going digital, the music industry killed itself, and I had absolutely nothing to do with it.)

British record collectors will no doubt remember this campaign that started in 1981, another business-backed “moral” panic. And funnily enough it had nothing to do with dubbing vinyl.

Instead, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) were taking aim at people who were recording songs off the radio instead of purchasing records. With the rise of the cassette tape in popularity, the BPI saw pounds and pence leaving their pockets.

Now, figuring out lost profits from home taping could be a fools’ errand, but let’s focus on the “illegal” part. Technically, this is true. Radio stations pay licensing fees to play music, so a consumer taping that song off the radio is infringing on the song’s copyright. Britain has very different “fair use” laws than America. In addition, digital radio and a clearer signals have complicated matters over the years.

In practice, however, the whole thing was bunkum. Radio recordings are historic. Mixtapes are culture. I have my tapes of John Peel’s BBC shows, which I recorded for the music. Now, I listen to them for Peel’s intros and outros.

Seriously, the Napalm Death Peel Sessions *only* make sense with his commentary. Whoever taped this is an unknown legend:

The post-punk crowd knew the campaign was bunkum too. Malcolm McLaren, always the provocateur, released Bow Wow Wow’s cassette-only-single C-30 C-60 C-90 Go with a blank B-side that urged consumers to record their own music. EMI quickly dropped the band.

The Dead Kennedys also repeated the black b-side gimmick with In God We Trust, Inc. (I would be interested in anybody who picks up a copy used of either to see what *is* on the b-side).

And then there were the parodies. The metal group Venom used “Home Taping Is Killing Music; So Are Venom” on an album; Peter Principle offered “Home Taping Is Making Music”: Billy Bragg kept it Marxist: “Capitalism is killing music – pay no more than £4.99 for this record”. For the industry, music was the product; for the regular folks, music was communication, it was art, it was a language.

The campaign never did much damage. Attempts to levy a tax on blank cassettes didn’t get traction in the UK. And BPI’s director general John Deacon was frustrated that record companies didn’t want to splash the Jolly Roger on inner sleeves. The logo lives on, however, as part of torrent site Pirate Bay’s sails:

Just after the hysteria died down, compact discs began their rise, planting the seeds for the digital revolution, the mp3, file sharing, and now streaming.

(Wait, is it possible to record internet streams? Why, yes.)

If you have any stories about how you helped “kill music” by recording your favorite DJs, confess your crimes in the comments.

Related Content:

2,000+ Cassettes from the Allen Ginsberg Audio Collection Now Streaming Online

Listen to Audio Arts: The 1970s Tape Cassette Arts Magazine Featuring Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp & Many Others

Conserve the Sound, an Online Museum Preserves the Sounds of Past Technologies–from Typewriters, Electric Shavers and Cassette Recorders, to Cameras & Classic Nintendo

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (9)
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  • Dave Bradley says:

    I remember a riposte at the time

    “Home taping is skill in music”

  • Jim A says:

    Techdirt put out a parody shirt a while back: “Home Cooking is Killing Restaurants”


  • Dan Picasso says:

    Much, much better for recording streaming audio than Total recorder, to which the article was linked, is Audacity, being free and open-source.

  • Manoli says:


  • Vincent Brown says:

    I wonder if Metallica was inspired by Billy Bragg with their “Garage Days Re-revisted. $5.98 Do Not Pay More!” EP?

  • Middagh Goodwin says:

    I remember KLOS on Sunday Nights would play an entire album one side at a time, commercial breaks and psa in the middle giving you time to flip the cassette for the B-Side. I later would record shows from the UC Berkeley radio station to play back later and decide which albums I was going to buy next.

  • Mark says:

    Tapes didn’t do anything negative for me. They even helped artists. A friend and I would split the cost of a tape and then make a copy. So instead of no sale to us, they got one sale. I had far more tapes than I ever had CDs. By the time I got around to buying CDs, since I had an older car with no player, computers were coming out with affordable drives. It was easy to borrow a disc and rip the songs off of it.
    The music industry could have gotten a jump on the digital revolution by offering CD burners at record stores. “Pick any 10 songs from any artist and burn your own disc for $10!”
    But they didn’t. They insisted on sticking with the album and tape idea: 2 good songs and 8 crappy filler songs, all bought as a package.
    They hurt themselves.
    I downloaded a ton off Napster and BearShare. Now I copy music off YouTube. I don’t feel guilty at all. After all the price fixing and payola scams the record companies have done over the years, too bad for them.
    The internet: all the piracy without the scurvy!

  • Bradley Olson says:

    Mark, there were chain record stores, Christian bookstores, etc. that had these kiosks that allowed one to burn custom CDs, and even some kiosks that used cassettes but those failed and most people didn’t use them. Now what record companies are endorsing is the CD-R on Demand concept where you mainly go to an online retailer such as Amazon, order a long out of print album (including many that have never been on CD and only on original vinyl, cassette, 8-track, etc.) or movie and they burn them on CD-R or DVD-R respectively and these have fine print in the retail listing that they are CD-Rs or DVD-Rs on demand. Much of what they release as CD-R on Demand is what record companies remaster mostly for streaming sites and download retailers.

  • Strypey says:

    I’ve never paid corporate record labels for music, on principle. The infamous Steve Albini essay (‘The Problem With Music’, 1993) sums up my thoughts about the industry. But I’ve paid to see a lot of live gigs over the years, and I never missed an opportunity to buy a tape or CD directly from bands. I bought a lot of used albums from record stores and 2nd hand shops, mostly on tape at first.

    I fondly remember the portable stereo I got as a present in my early teens. It had two tape decks, one of which could record from the other deck, the radio, built-in mic, or stereo RCA inputs. I used to dub original tapes borrowed from friends, so I could listen to whole albums enough times to decided if I liked them enough to look out for a gig I could go to, or a used copy to buy. I also used my stereo to make mixtapes of course, both from songs recorded off the radio and from original tapes. I still had it during the Napster years, and used it to make mixtapes from mp3s I downloaded, by plugging my PCs’ audio card into the stereo’s RCA inputs.

    Even if the corporate media industry had succeeded in shutting down public access to cassette tapes, VHS tapes, CD-Rs, mp3s, P2P sharing, etc, I would have just continued listening to the radio, going to gigs, and buying used albums (protected under the ‘first-sale doctrine’). The idea that they could have coerced me into paying for their product by shutting down other forms of music distribution is laughable.

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