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. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

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.