Myth & Reality: “Home Taping Is Killing Music”

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 28 September 2017 |



Ah, that enduring slogan… How much can you remember? Was the BPI’s infamous anti-piracy campaign a ’70s thing? An ’80s thing? Was the slogan really as ubiquitous as people seem to remember? How did the campaign start? And most importantly, if home taping really was killing music, what in the name of Derek Smalls’ doubleneck is YouTube doing to it?…

SETTING THE SCENE


“HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC – AND IT’S ILLEGAL”. A capitalised warning, which, decades ago, became ingrained into the psyche of a generation. The phrase is well known as a brainchild of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), devised to deter all law-abiding music fans from recording commercial releases onto audio cassettes, and then… Well, no one seemed quite able to pinpoint exactly what they did next. But whatever was alleged to be happening, no one was getting anything for free…

Cassettes, we should remind ourselves, cost money. Home taping wasn’t like illegal file-sharing where there is no financial overhead. For any kind of content redistribution to take place in the ’70s and ’80s, people had to go out and BUY audio cassettes. One for every single copy of the content. And there was a trade-off between quality and economy.

The cheap tapes sounded woolly and were plagued with background hiss. The more expensive ones sounded better, but were… Well, more expensive. This limited the scope for piracy far more than has been the case in the Internet age, because there were significant compromises, and ultimately, someone in the chain was going to have to foot the bill.



Above: Audio cassettes were one of many technologies which, over the years, have struck fear into the music industry.

Even if a cash-strapped teenager was only going to borrow one album and tape it for themselves, they had to want that album enough to pay for the cassette onto which they recorded it. But NOT enough to plump for the original product with its optimum quality, attractive packaging, sleeve notes, kudos, resale potential, etc… That was a very narrow – some might even say unlikely – window of desire.

Then they had to manage to borrow the record in the first place. Recalling how precious most of us were about our record collections, that could prove a serious challenge. Back in the distant depths of the post-punk era, owners certainly wouldn’t have been quick to dish out their picture disks, coloured vinyls and prized limited editions to the local cadger. No one knew what sort of state the records would be in when, or if, they were returned. Why take that risk? The majority of kids (some under strict instructions from their parents) would not lend records. As I recall, not many kids would even ask to borrow.



Above: Picture discs from the height of the “Home taping…” slogan’s reign. Creating must-have ‘vinyl jewellery’ was an alternative approach to preserving official sales as cassettes became more popular.

Larger scale piracy was not a smooth ride either. High volume pirates would need a public interface, and finance. They’d also have to significantly undercut the legitimate distribution chains to get trade. And even then their customers were almost inevitably getting substandard audio, substandard packaging/printing… Was it worth a consumer paying marginally less than retail value for an inferior copy on a fly-by-night market stall, to someone who would not be traceable if half the tracks turned out to be missing?

Apart from risking serious legal repercussions, high volume pirates typically raised too many red flags with consumers to be widely viable. Live bootleggers admittedly did brisk trade, but they were selling something consumers couldn’t buy through authorised channels.



Above: Bootleg cassettes recorded on the sly at live gigs were fast sellers in the early 1980s. But any suggestion that these tapes negatively impacted sales of commercial releases was incredibly dubious. These lo-fi mementos were bought by fans. The kind of fans who bought an album twice if it came with two different cover designs. Major record labels didn’t ‘get’ that fan mentality at all. Indie labels – run by fans – more often did, and would sometimes even present live albums in a bootleg format, warts-and-all, complete with typewriter-stylee sleeve notes and a ‘bootleg’ price tag. If they wanted it, there was no reason why labels couldn’t take that market away from the bootleggers.

SALES SLUMP


But piracy’s natural limitations did not stop fluctuations in music business profits. Around the end of the 1970s, music sales dropped sharply, and whilst there were various factors involved in that, the industry cited “home taping” as a significant cause. Economic conditions had been very volatile, with extremely high inflation. In the six years between 1975 and 1981, the price of a single in the UK had more than doubled. By 1981, an album would typically cost £4.99, whilst a high quality blank cassette would pitch somewhere between £1.25 and £1.50. Lower quality cassettes could be bought for less than 80p.

Meanwhile, rising technologies were driving media away from vinyl towards cassettes. Devices such as the personal stereo, the car stereo and the ‘boombox’ were making music portable, and they could not play vinyl.

This did not necessarily mean people were going to home-tape. Or even that they could. The problem remained, particularly with albums which would not be played in full on the radio, that before anyone could home-tape a product, they would first have to obtain it. And even with singles, radio may not be a satisfactory source. DJs would talk over sections, skip over the intros and endings… And radio was not digital. Analogue reception would always compromise the quality.

Most people who wanted a musical product in its full, optimal form, would have to buy it. Yes, they may then home-tape it to play on their Walkman or in the car. And they may do the same with their existing record collection. But that was not redistribution. It didn’t negate the need for other people to go out and buy that music.



Above: The classic cassette and crossbones warning on a 1983 Stiff Little Fingers double album.

BLAME THE BUYING PUBLIC


In spite of the complexity of the issue, and the complete guesswork involved in establishing the actual cost of piracy, the BPI chose to blame the buying public for the downturn in music industry revenue. Yes, the buying public. The plan was to print “HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC – AND IT’S ILLEGAL” on the inner sleeve of legitimately purchased records. That’s roughly like a gift shop handing over each purchase in a little box that says: “Hey, don’t steal gifts!”. Are you EVER going to visit that shop again?

Worse, by the time the BPI decided to blame the buying public for the impending death of the music industry, sales were actually in sharp recovery. Upon introduction, the slogan was thus, literally, a lie. And worse still, whilst the losses to artists due to piracy were unknown, the losses to artists due to the industry’s own rip-offs were irrefutable, and astronomical. “INDUSTRY SHARKS ARE KILLING MUSIC” might have been a more appropriate slogan. At least that was a known quantity.

‘SEVENTIES OR ‘EIGHTIES?


Some sources cite the “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign as a ’70s initiative, whilst others link it with the ’80s. The truth is that it was both… sort of. The actual slogan “Home Taping is Killing Music – And it’s Illegal” didn’t enter public consciousness until the latter throes of 1981. It was at this time that some commercial releases (and it was only a minority) began to carry the iconic cassette and crossbones warning. Many people who have the slogan floating around their temporal lobe might remember it more through exposure to the accompanying TV campaign than the actual record sleeves.

The slogan’s real hotspot in history was the 1982-1983 period. But there was a fairly quick realisation, at least in some quarters, that the rather aggressive slogan might alienate paying customers. Equally, some feared that the slogan could actually PROMPT home taping. GLORIFY home taping. Portray it as a more enticing proposition than it actually was. After all, if it had the power to kill music, it must be pretty bloody good, right?…

Realistically, the slogan probably served only to alienate conscientious customers, whilst reminding potential offenders to top up their supply of C60s. Various parties claimed a role in the demise of “Home Taping is Killing Music”, but the truth behind its failure is probably just that it was incredibly poorly judged, and aimed at the wrong people. Indeed, from the start, most labels rejected the warning, and some mocked it. Consequently, the majority of releases did not carry the slogan.

Some labels were tentative and experimented with alternative options. For example, in the year after the slogan was introduced, some Chrysalis albums appeared with the slogan, some appeared with the pre-slogan warning (more of which in a moment), and some appeared with no warning at all. The inner sleeves would typically show a print date, so it was clear that the company was not simply using up pre-slogan stock. Indeed, I found one Stiff Little Fingers double album on Chrysalis, with both inner sleeves print-dated November 1983. One sleeve has the pre-slogan warning only, and the other has both the pre-slogan warning and the slogan warning.



Above: This original 1975 pressing of Queen's A Night at the Opera album has no copyright warning on its packaging.

THE PRE-SLOGAN WARNING


1981's slogan warning did not arrive without precedent.

Audio cassettes had been rising in popularity through the course of the 1970s. In the mid ’70s, the quality of the cassettes was generally poor. Decent Chrome Type IIs were a higher priced, specialist product not typically sold to Mr or Mrs Average. The same went for the then brand new Ferrochrome Type IIIs, and Metal Type IVs were yet to be invented. The consumer was essentially confined to standard ferric Type I tapes, which at that time were hissy, and lacking in high frequency response.

Nevertheless, even in the mid 1970s, the music industry had a bee in its bonnet about home taping, and albums began to feature what I’m calling the pre-slogan warning, on their inner sleeves. The pre-slogan warning was essentially a seemingly matter-of-fact copyright notice, like this…



I rifled through records collected by my parents/grandparents for early evidence of the pre-slogan warning. The earliest I could find was lurking on an inner sleeve with a print date of October 1976 (which is what you see above). It does specifically warn against re-recording. I went through many earlier albums and was unable to find any copyright notices. There are notices relating to almost every other relevant issue you can imagine – like this deluge of information on the inner sleeve of a Julian Bream album…



But nothing about copyright. There are sure to be some pre-slogan warnings from earlier dates than the 10/76 example I found, but I suspect that before the mid 1970s, copyright notices were almost universally deemed unnecessary. The album copyright notice was not simply a copyright notice. It was a cloaked warning. “Do not record this music onto a cassette”. The precursor to “Home Taping is Killing Music”.

THE INTERNET


In comparison to the revenue music giants have lost through file-sharing and free streaming, home taping was an inconsequence. We can all use YouTube as an on-demand music streaming resource, without paying a single penny. And yet here we are in a world where top recording artists are still rolling in money. How does that work?

Typically, on the contemporary music scene, only a minor proportion of a major artist’s revenue will come from actual music sales. Today, the bulk of the artist’s earnings will come from live appearances, endorsements, etc. Whilst the cost of recorded music has plummeted, live ticket prices are now proportionally much higher than they were in the early 1980s. The Internet may have taken away, but it’s also given.

Without the Internet and its culture of connectivity and free sharing, it’s hard to see how the new, higher value of live shows could ever have been established. Not only has the Internet exaggerated the sense of demand and urgency for tickets; it’s also inflated the sense of celebrity for many artists. Made them somehow more real and important in people’s lives. It’s enabled them to connect with their fans – build a bond with their fans – without the permission of a TV company. To stay ever-present in their fans’ consciousness without dependency on the press.

The lesson has been that yes, the public will take. But the public will also enthuse, and eulogise, and celebritise, and worship. And where it perceives value, the public will give. What we’ve seen, is that when the public has its way, celebrity artists become indispensable - inseparable from their work. Today, they can’t just be recorded, sidelined, and represented by a piece of plastic issued to retailers by a corporate body. Access to the artist, in person, has become a buzz for which the public is prepared to pay an increasingly handsome premium, whilst access to recorded work is awarded a value close to zero.

What sort of slogan the recording industry might coin in the light of that I don’t really know. It's probably a bit late for “HOME BROADBAND IS KILLING THE INTERNET”.

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