Home Taping Is Killing Music: When the Music Industry Waged War on the Cassette Tape During 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 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.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

Related Content:

Frank Zappa Debates Whether the Government Should Censor Music in a Heated Episode of Crossfire: Why Are People Afraid of Words? (1986)

The Devilish History of the 1980s Parental Advisory Sticker: When Heavy Metal & Satanic Lyrics Collided with the Religious Right

75 Post-Punk and Hardcore Concerts from the 1980s Have Been Digitized & Put Online: Fugazi, GWAR, Lemonheads, Dain Bramage (with Dave Grohl) & More

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (41) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (41)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Joe says:

    I have the Skullcassette-and-Bones tattooed on my stomach

  • Vince Hoffman says:

    Taking punk and reggae albums and making cassette tapes was huge for me in the ’80s. After that I had a few friends burn me cds – most of which I promptly bought.None of it impacted my actual purchases, other than to help them, of which the musicians hopefully benefited.

    Streaming my be different, but I have never taken a shine to it, so like the author-don’t blame me!

  • Taylor says:

    Home recording is how I taught myself to play guitar. I’d wait for white zombie or whatever else, rip it, then learn 10 seconds at a time. 23 years later my ear training techniques are being passed on by giving lessons, and I am pretty damn good! Best thing I ever stole.

  • Johnny says:

    I have 100’s of hours of the Howard Stern show on cassette

  • Brent Holley says:

    While it’s obvious that home recorded cassette tapes had little to no detrimental impact on the music industry (some might say that tape trading was a net positive impact), it should by now, be equally obvious that because bands can no longer sell recordings (thanks to the fact that people can have the music without paying for it) the industry has largely died.

  • Tim says:

    I, like many teenagers, sat next to the boombox with a large capacity cassette loaded up waiting to hit play/pause at beginning of every song. If it was a song I didn’t like, or already had, I just rewound the tape a little bit and queued it up waiting for the next song. I’d do that all day! Made many fine mix tapes. We’d call up the station to give a shout out and eagerly try to record that if it made it on the radio too. The ability to pull up any song, at any time, these days, is such a marvelous thing when I think back to those days!

  • Jonathan Cumblidge says:

    I used to spend my Sat afternoons taping Fluff on Radio 1 while listening on my headphones. Led Zep, Yes, Genesis, Tangerine Dream. Alan Freeman used to called his listeners “Music Lovers”. He would also play 3 songs in a row and ask us how they were linked. I still have those tapes today. Ah, the 70’s!!

  • Chris open c poepping says:

    Heyman man strong beginning, bit of a fizzleat the end. Love the mix tape still have some. Love the mixed disc, still have some, love the file share still have a computer full, do not like the You tube music, the Spotify or the deezer. Gone back L.P’s.

  • Donald Hargraves says:

    The one thing I always noticed was that the people with the biggest taped cassette collections were also the people buying the actual releases.

  • Pedro says:

    Hello, and how are you doing?
    Well, I am grateful for your sacrifice,and help with life, with the creative way to stir up trouble,when it is applied right.

    Causes people to look,and to become conscious of the unseen becomes seen.
    Putting out fires,like I say!

    Keep on the rhythm, where it goes,it goes!
    Do it yourself made me realize,the cost where it goes to make life,come through.
    Words, Music, Activity!
    Freedom is the best way to fight out,through all Bullshit ,that has been applied.
    Then falls off, when it is freedom achieved,then real sight is about that!

  • Tonedef says:

    I recorded everything as a teen, swapped tapes with friends, copied their records and CD’s too. Yet I still went down to the record store and bought as much vinyl as I could. The album artwork and liner notes alone was worth it, plus I didn’t want to cheat the artists I loved.

  • tre says:

    back in the early 90’s there was a late sunday show on local radio with host Claude Rajotte that was centered mainly around alternative music.
    I would record the entire show, and then later re-dub the tracks I liked onto a mixtape.

    my music tastes wouldn’t be what they are without that show and the mix tapes I was making from it.

  • Ziggy says:

    I was born in late 1968 in Poland. Started listening to this music in middle eighties.
    At this time it was the ONLY way to have Dead Kennedy’s or The Clash, or polish punk bands on our stereos.
    Couldn’t buy it anywhere,as the official government was against it. I still have some garage recording from this days.

  • Silicon Falcon says:

    I have been recording music off the radio onto cassettes and CDs, recording TV and movies onto VCR and TiVo, and saving streamed music, movies, and TV shows (for personal use only) for as long as I can remember. I’ve even mixed tapes for friends and family.
    I do this mainly because I can’t afford to buy all the music that I want to listen to (who really can afford to purchase it all?).
    I listen to all of my music for $15 a month, record what I listen to and have it all saved on my home server.
    Now, for those bands that are still active and not burnt out, I attend every show that comes close and buy all their merch.
    What good is a beautiful photo, painting, sculpture, and whatever else artists create, if no one experiences it?
    Music should be free to listen to and if you enjoy it, go pay to see the band perform those songs live and buy a t-shirt.

    Capitalism and greed is the root of all evil.

  • Pete Vieth says:

    Let’s take the Grateful Dead as an example! On tour from 1966 to present, they not only allowed us to record their shows, they actually invited it! Since they just are finishing the final tour in 2023, it doesn’t look like swapping homemade tapes killed the music!

  • Meadhbh says:

    I wish the web interface allowed me to upvote your comment.

  • Lydianon says:

    Yeah but rock stars are Supposed get Rich and Decadent. Adds to the mystique of the whole thing.

  • Blaq Herman says:

    Recording Dj Red Alert 98.7 Kiss FM and Mr Magic Rap Attack on Friday and Saturday nights was weekly ritual! Back then these were the only hours you could hear Hip Hop on the radio. We recorded the show and the next day flex the tape to the crew hoping they fell asleep before you did, which meant you got something they didn’t.
    Before the dj shows, we had the mix tapes that would circulate through out the hip hop community, recordings of parties thrown in abandoned buildings, parks and community centers featuring djs like Kid Capri, Kool Herc and others.
    Honestly come to think about hip hop may not be where it’s at today if it weren’t for the underground cassette tapes that were dubbed and passed along from NY to cousins in the South.

  • Tym says:

    I had that dead Kennedys in God we trust Inc. Album when I was a skatepunk in 1985. I dubbed suicidal tendencies “join the army” on the other side of it but it didn’t all fit.

  • W.E. Poteet says:

    No I don’t think that had an impact . Most of us bought our albums . We wanted the cover art , the liner notes if there were some , and all the credits of those involved along with the music We owned something . Now the Internet , download , computer click era ? That has altered the ecology to where there is no more record industry.

  • Brian says:

    Not sure about the “illegal” aspect. At least by 1992 in America, I believe it was established in the Audio Home Recording Act that such activities were legal (so long as not commercial). I suppose in the 80s it was still up for debate or possibly illegal. Which I get this article is about, but I feel like it still implied that the act itself remains illegal, I don’t think that it is.

  • Tim Mardanes says:

    I still have some collector vinyl because I recorded them and left them pristine. I’d listen to the tapes instead. Couldn’t listen to vinyl in my old Volkswagen, anyway.

  • Chick DeCicco says:

    I’m 75 years old and STILL record songs off the radio and listen to them in my car, which is equipped with both a CD player and cassette player. I’ve been doing this for about 50 years and have around 1,000 cassettes. BUT,I still buy vinyl and CDs

  • César says:

    Mi primera colección de punk y rock alternativo estaba compuesta por cientos de k7s copiados de otros, también copiados. Un hiissshhh delirante sumaba una interesante estética a lo que sonaba en mi vieja Sony. Luego, con los discos compactos, ahorraba semanas para comprar uno, o cualquier amigo, y luego los copiábamos en K7s para compartirlos con lxs amigxs. Con mis primeras bandas grabábamos de manera casera y compartíamos nuestra música. Más tarde llegó el Internet y todo fue distinto. De mi colección de cerca de 500 k7s solo conservo unos cuantos. A esta colección se suman las producciones de bandas independientes que ahora le apuestan a este formato. ¡Una maravilla!

  • DC says:

    I used to buy vinyl albums and immediately put them on cassette so I could one play it in the car and two wouldn’t wear out the vinyl too soon. I rarely if ever shared entire albums with friends just made a lot of mix tapes of songs off albums I’d bought.

  • ⁴Chick DeCicco says:

    Tim, I still do that today
    Including calling radio stations and recording it

  • Blockhead says:

    ‘And BPI’s director general John Deacon was frustrated that record companies didn’t want to splash the Jolly Roger on inner sleeves’

    Woooaah slow down there…. the bass player from Queen was moonlighting as the DG of the BPI??!!

    But seriously – whilst home taping really didn’t hurt the industry too much, file sharing did.

    It’s a question of scale – if you copy an album onto tape for your mate, they might copy it for one or two other people and it will go no further.

    Upload an album onto a file sharing server, and it could potentially be downloaded by hundreds, or even thousands of users.

    The complaints against Napster were not just some rich people crying wolf. Between 2000-2010, the revenues of the record industry halved. And we all know how hard it is to make money from records these days.

  • Tom says:

    In the 1960’s, I would sit next to the radio with a small reel to reel tape recorder holding the microphone next to the speaker. When I was older, I scratched up many records learning the guitar parts little by little, trying to put the needle onto the right spot for the next part.

  • distearth says:

    Making tapes of album for friends was great. If I got a tape of an album a friend made me I felt that I too now owned that album. If it was good enough I might even just buy the vinyl but usually not. Always had to have a copy of your vinyl on cassette for the car.
    Later… When I worked at Blockbuster Music, I would open the CDs and tape them right in the store if there were no promo copies:)

  • Terry Allen says:

    Recording or copying an artist’s creation is stealing money the publisher, the writer, the producer, and finally the artist himself. Whilel it’s true the record business had a great deal to do with its own downfall by price gouging and other questionable practices, the fact remains that you are stealing. If this continues eventually they’ll be no new music of quality available for the simple reason that there will be no money in it. If there’s no money in it how many young people will say “Boy or boy I want to become a musician and be broke the rest of my life? Think about that the next time you steal from an artist.

  • Kenny says:

    Cause taylor swift could use that extra billion dollars on top of the billion she already has

  • Larry J says:

    First: here’s another half-article. Sigh. Just when it gets going, it ends! No written conclusion, it just stops. Why is journalism doing this these days??

    Second, OT: no one was ever hurt from us taping songs off the radio, period. The legality of labels’ efforts to stop it had to do with making money off taping, which just never happened. I know it alleged that taping meant fewer records sold, and I’m sure that was partially true. But, umm, if you grew up doing this, you also know you never got an unblemished tune— DJs often clipped the ends and frequently talked up to the vocals.

    And what about all the rare stuff radio offered? I used to tape hours of sets, commercials and all, just because. And simulcast concerts and King Biscuit Flower Hour shows? Were we NOT supposed to record those? Cuz I missed that disclaimer, which would’ve been especially rich coming from labels that supplied said music.

    Along with that is another fact: radio broadcasts compressed sound, and when we bought albums, guess what? They sounded much better than over-the-air. We did actually buy music! Really, even though record companies had SOME merit in their complaints, remember we’re talking about mega-corporations that make bank off artists who historically have gotten the raw deal from them. Sooo…. this has never been a clean discussion.

  • Lonepig says:

    The b-side to the “in God We Trust” cassette was blank, and the tab that would allow a tape recorder to engage was still in place. I used it To record guitar riffs.

  • Dejan Kovacevic says:

    Well, I remember – actually I don’t, since this was way back, but know it as a historic fact – when there was NO music INDUSTRY and people were actively making music. Music is culture and culture should not be privatized. There were talented and skillful musicians and composers and there were ways to stimulate both to make music, that’s how we have centuries of progress in the art of music, but there were no agents and managers and record labels and bean counters who are now screaming about theft, not of music but of their income. That is basically what you’re talking about. Most of the talent will do fine when the new model, the one that will replace the above model, sets in and music will not disappear, it’s just that a lot of the middle men were removed from the process.

  • Not A Name says:

    I regularly home-recorded Phil Collins, but his music was not killed.

  • Steve says:

    Yes! The real crime started with file sharing. Making mix tapes or recording so you could play your music in your car wasn’t that harmful. A mix tape was great for making your own playlist back on the ancient years of the 70s to mid 80s. I can never recall a time when a time when I wouldn’t buy an album because I could get a tape recording. It just wasn’t the same. In todays digital age the file sharing is (was) making great sounding copies of music for the masses. That is when money was being lost. When I first heard of the concept I thought ‘How is this legal’?

  • Dougie fresh says:

    Mann how about when you heard song on radio or artist for first time…and you recorded it on wax….this was best era of music Saturdays stuffed tapes sides so cassette player can record so many Saturdays bored at home…my happy place music…

  • David McGlynn says:

    I tried to eradicate Billy Joel music thru relentless taping, but to no avail.

  • Baby J says:

    Back at you. I have some taped shows of Red Alert, Eazy E, and maybe Mr. Magic. The one I missed taping was a WFUV show that once played ‘underground’ original hiphop tapes that came from all over the country.

  • Ruki says:

    For me, it was an issue of money. I AM AN ADDICT. I couldn’t afford to buy the music I wanted, so I started out taping friends records onto RtR tape, later to cassettes. It is in fact capitalism that hurt things. The industry has their own unique bookkeeping system, so it’s easier for them to rip-off musicians. Even now, with the digital systems, musicians are getting screwed.

  • Rod Stasick says:

    In the US, there’s an FCC rule that states that you cannot announce a tune on the air that’s past the one you are getting ready to play. In other words, you cannot announce the next TWO tunes (or more) that you are getting ready to play. the reason given is that if someone is alerted to an upcoming tune, they will “naturally” record it. Yes, it’s 2023.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.