Cassette culture was a cornerstone of the indie and punk rock undergrounds of the 80s. First you made tapes of albums that you owned for your friends who didn't have them. Then, at some golden point of inspiration in the course of cultural evolution, someone invented the mix tape. Whoever that wonderful man or woman was should be sainted. The mix opened up our interaction with music to an entirely new dimension, allowing scores of teenagers to use someone's heartfelt, tortured utterances to say to a fellow pimply outcast, "Um, I like you."
Then there was the phenomenon of tape trading. Borrowed from rabid Grateful Dead fans (the true hardcore pioneers and standard-bearers of tape culture), tape trading linked the nation, and then the world, in a web of Maxell 90-minute missives. Some were utter shit, some were life-changing genius. It was like, "Here I am in South Jersey and I love my local hardcore band. I will place an ad in this zine that is based in California, and then that girl in London will see it, write me, and then we will trade tapes: my Jersey straightedge hardcore for her Brighton twee-pop all-girl group." It made you feel like a citizen of the world.
Then CDs came out, stomping the crunchy tapes down under their shimmering plastic feet. (OK, that's a little dramatic, but Christ, tapes really did get obsolete-ed fast.) At first, you still used tapes to record CDs for friends who didn't have them, just like with vinyl before. But eventually, CD players became as affordable and ordinary as toasters, and cassettes really and fully became like the childhood teddy bears that sit in our parents' closets crying teddy tears and wondering why we don't love them anymore.
For most of the 90s, the technology to make your own CDs in a home environment was the province of fat nerds. Now even THAT is commonplace and my little brother burns CDs with fucking New Found Glory on them faster than a Taiwanese bootleg DVD factory.
Luckily, there is an upside of putting CD-making technology in the hands of the proles. The same spirit that led tape culture to bubble up from all over the country has led to CD-R culture. All hail it.
One scene that is inextricably linked to CD-Rs (home-manufactured CDs, doye), is the psych-folk-free-noise-ambient-underground. Ugh. I prefer for it to be a Nameless Genre, but if you need a reference point, don't think about Devendra Banhart or something. He is to this music what Britney Spears is to Nina Hagen. What I am talking about here is an international culture of musicians, most of whom record at home, who play together when they can, and when they can't, they mail CD-Rs back and forth. Luckily, we can buy them too.
Free from the constraints of album-like sequencing and forced cohesion, and VERY free from record label pleas for a single, these musicians are allowed to be as hit-or-miss as they want. One CD-R will contain transcendent hymns of universal warmth, and the next will sound like a bunch of lazy hippies on a bad acid day.
David Keenan of the Glasgow duo Taurpis Tula and the online music emporium Volcanic Tongue says, "One of the greatest things about CD-Rs is having creative immediacy. As soon as the gush of your muse hits the tape or disc, you can press it up, burn it, and have it out in the space of a few days. Your music and art can interact with the world while it's still at its most potent. It also allows you to document works-in-progress in small runs for anyone who's interested in the process and the atomics of detail."
The whole being-free-from-the-corporate-machine-thing appeals to the members of Vermont's Sunburned Hand of the Man, a loose collective of violent hippies who play some of the most inspired and advanced rock music currently going. "CDs are cool because you can be in a K-hole and still get one together," says Sunburned spokesperson John Moloney, "whereas a real CD takes phone calls, arguing, and waiting around. We started doing this in 2000, only because I got a computer. We made them to bring to shows at first, since we didn't have any records out and folks were always asking for something. It's empowering. I'm real happy that CD-Rs have been booming in the last couple of years."
More venerable participants in the musical underground are involved in this, too. Like (and I'm not saying they're old, because they aren't) Charalambides, a group that began in Texas in 1984. Their music is grand—too smart to be called stoner, but closely related to marijuana in vibe. Tom Carter, along with his partner Christina Carter, runs both Charalambides and the CD-R label Wholly Other. "There are about six Charalambides CD-Rs," says Tom. "Both Christina and I have a good chunk of solo CD-Rs as well, mostly on Wholly Other. Our average run is around 100-200, though some have gone over 300."
Vibracathedral Orchestra, a UK group working in my aforementioned Nameless Genre, has been doing proper CDs, as well as CD-Rs, since 1998. Neil Campbell is the boss of Vibracathedral, and he has embraced CD-R culture wholeheartedly. "I've just started a new solo project, Astral Social Club, which is an ongoing series of CD-Rs in editions of just 100 copies," Neil tells me, "all in similar packaging, where I just take a few more chances than my other recordings. The fact that they're coming out on small-run CD-Rs has liberated my creative spirit a lot, without really compromising the quality of music. Like I'm not just releasing any old shit, but neither am I belaboring the things. So, CD-R format as a creative enema? Yeah!"
Get all this stuff and find links to all these people at volcanictongue.com.