Decades before the invention of the MP3, the audiocassette, along with the home dubbing deck and four-track tape recorders, put the power to create and distribute recordings into the hands of anyone with the will to record. No longer reliant on record labels or the capital investment needed to rent studio time and press records, by the 1980s an international community of independent-minded artists had emerged, networked via photocopied ’zines, grassroots magazines and P.O. boxes because even the widest home-recorded cassette release was unlikely to be stocked in record stores.
Tapes were just as likely to be traded—one artist swapping her own tapes, or something else of value (like a ’zine), for another’s—as they were to be bought or sold. Even when commerce was involved, the price would only be a few bucks and quantities could be strictly limited, due more to pragmatics like blank tape supplies and dubbing time than anything else.
Shows on community and college radio stations were the few mass media platforms open to playing home recorded and distributed music. One of the longest-lasting of these is “No Pigeonholes Radio” hosted by musician Don Campeau since 1985 on community radio KKUP in Cupertino, CA.
Though cassettes, like vinyl, seem to be having a bit of revival—even with their own day—I’ve been fascinated by cassette culture for decades. I stumbled upon “No Pigeonholes Radio” a couple of months ago during a late night ’net research expedition, wherein I dived deep into the oeuvre of experimental musician Hal McGee. I found an interview with McGee that Campau published on his website, The Living Archive of Underground Music, which in turn led me to his radio show.
Initially focused on home-recording cassette artists, the show now features music released on any format, but is still dedicated to DIY musicians. After listening to some shows in the “No Pigeonholes” archive, I finally decided to drop Campau a line and see if he would be up for an email interview. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.
PR: How and why did you start “No Pigeonholes?”
DC: After I became involved in what was later called cassette culture in 1984 a light went off in my head. I already have a radio show. Why not feature all these tapes I was now getting in trade?
These trades were fostered, to begin with, by reviews in mags such as OP, Sound Choice, Option, Factsheet Five, etc.
I rarely bought tapes. I was very proactive and wrote letters everyday from reviews in these mags, and then from addresses on compilation announcements, and then from little promo papers that used to accompany a trade. I wrote literally thousands of letters (this was well before email) and I would almost always send a trade tape in return.
PR: In the 1980s it was common for college and community radio to play underground and independent music, what did you want to do that was different?
DC: I simply wanted to portray the tape scene that was happening. No styles rejected, not about the music biz, not about “making it.” These were not demos, but the finished product, representing the everyday person who was making music at home.
PR: Stations often didn’t play cassettes on air simply because they are more difficult to cue up than records, and later, CDs. Was it a challenge, from a practical point of view?
DC: It was a challenge. I had to bring in my own tape deck, and sometime two decks just to be able to record it as well. By the way, I have every show since 1985 on tape, CD or digital file. I am slowly uploading them to archive.org.
PR: These days your show features music in a variety of formats, not just cassette. When did that shift first occur?
DC: In the late 90s people started turning their attention to CDs and the tape format became marginalized to some degree. I still got tapes even after 2000, but much less when digital home recording and duplication became affordable and widespread. The heyday of cassette culture is mainly painted as 1985–1995 but, in reality, was a bit longer than that.
PR: As a DJ, these days do you prefer to have the tape, CD or a digital file?
DC: I am a hard copy guy. But, really, I am fine with a digital file now, too. There is nothing holy about tapes. They were simply a means to an end. Cheap, easy to get and easy to mail.
Bandcamp is great and so is Soundcloud. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you will make lots of money.
PR: Isn’t that no more true today than it was in the heyday of cassette culture in the 80s and 90s?
DC: Yes, but during the heyday of tapes nobody really thought their tape was going to make them big or be profitable. It was only with the advent of the CD, which people felt was somehow more legitimate, did people delude themselves in this way. That delusion continues into today, and many people write me feeling confused and angry because they cannot “make it.”
I try to softly tell them that is not my focus, and although I have played thousands of artists on the show, I have never met one who could do what I did with my job in the produce department of a grocery store: buy a house, have insurance, a pension, three kids and an ability to take care of a family. This simply does not happen in the music business for 99% of artists, ever.
The bottom line: for me, I am OK calling music a “hobby.” But that is evidently a dirty word for many musicians. I always tell people: Get a job and career you can handle and that will enable you to focus on music as an art, or something to have fun with.
PR: Cassettes are seeing a bit of revival in the last few years, even if not quite on par with the vinyl resurgence. What do you think the allure of cassettes is now?
DC: I think there are a number of reasons. First, a counter-reaction to the “invisible” digital culture where there is “no there, there.” Also, an opportunity to have something tangible to offer and hold, with art and unusual presentation. Plus, with tapes there is no easy way to get to specific songs; one must listen to the entire tape unless you want to rewind or fast forward.
To me, though, it was never about format. [It was] not about tapes at all, but about creating community and using affordable means of recording and distribution. Tape culture also offered a way to create relationships with people, too. Heck, I ended up marrying a home taper from New Jersey!
When CDs and digital distribution became the standard [there was] a certain lack of this community. For example, in the old days one would get a tape and a letter, and maybe there might be personal info [shared], and not just music talk. Letters would get exchanged, friendships developed, histories created.
In 1991 Kevyn Dymond and myself traveled to Europe for a five-week tour of other home tapers in Germany, France, Norway and England. We even performed in East Germany right after the Wall came down, with improvising crazy men, Das Freie Orchester. So, the relationship might be extended with a phone call, [or] a possible in-person meeting.
To this day, I have people that are very meaningful to me, and whom I consider to be close friends, that I have never met or even talked to.
Now, things are different. I might get a mass email from an artist saying, “here’s my mp3, can you play it on your show?” There is no asking me how I am, no relationship that goes deeper. It’s a good thing that I have long time friendships with so many people from the old days. This has created continuity for me.
PR: When you get the mass-email asking you to check out a song or artist, do you?
Yes, I do. I try to encourage a personal relationship and push it a little bit. I’ll still air stuff even if I don’t like it, or if it’s impersonal. The show is not about me. It’s about exposing unknown artists, especially those recording at home.
I always write back telling people I got their music. I am one of the few DJs that makes sure everyone knows they got airtime by sending not only playlists, but also links to podcasts with their music.
PR: Are the relationships still being forged in the underground music community?
Yes, I think so. Younger people write me all the time asking about it, and wondering how to do it. It’s hard and relentless work, even in this digital age. Not everyone is a frustrated music biz type. There are still plenty of curious and inventive people doing interesting things.
The internet is not inherently superficial. Relationships, community and personal connections are still possible—in fact, maybe even easier. There are no more trips to the post office, and tremendous amounts of money are saved on postage and materials. But why does it so rarely happen?
We seem to be in a, “look at me, push it out, one-way-street” kind of mentality to a large degree. I think Facebook and social media are a good thing. Sure, there are tons of meaningless crap, but I have made connections and reconnections with people I lost touch with for many years. I like that.
It is fashionable to knock Facebook now. I use it because it works for me. If it doesn’t work for you stop complaining and don’t do it. And while you’re at it, stop bitching that no one wants to buy your music or doesn’t pay attention to you. This is the 21st century, get on the bus if you want to be heard.