Did Home Taping Really Kill Music?

"Home taping is killing music... and it's illegal" is a campaign slogan you may remember from the early eighties.

It came at a time just before music lovers switched from cassette to CD - when Walkmans were an extension to your outfit, and you slung your boomboxes over your shoulder. Home taping was a new phenomenon giving way to romantic mixtapes and Hip-Hop as a genre. But did it really kill music?To put it simply, no.

But the mass printing of the Jolly Rodger cross with the slogan on cassettes and vinyl cases would say otherwise. The motto by British Phonographic Industry (the trade association representing Britain's music industry) warns consumers that copying the music they had bought is theft. The slogan was part of the second wave to BPI's first anti-taping campaign, "home taping is wiping out music", signed and supported by Elton John, Cliff Richards, and Gary Numan.

So, why the threatening campaign if home taping didn't kill music?

The new slogan came as a retaliation to the twin-deck cassette players designed for copying tapes. Finally, music lovers could record and share the music they liked. Unfortunately for them, the British music industry saw the rise of tape-to-tape recording as a threat. They pointed their fingers at fans for the decline in music sales and began the intimidating campaign.

However, the threat from BPI came with a backlash. Many music lovers felt attacked over their consumer rights and BPI labelling them as thieves for copying music they had bought. Quickly, it became apparent that the record labels were anxious about a possible loss of income rather than artist and consumer rights.

Thank you, Lord Sugar?

I'm going to show my age here. But, I genuinely did not expect Alan Sugar to be one of the leading promoters of home taping when researching this article.

Lord Sugar made an affordable twin deck with his company Amstrad for the general public in 1981. When on a visit to Tokyo, a professional music deck containing twin cassette recorders inspired Sugar. The cassette deck could hold two cassettes, offering the chance to copy a pre-recorded cassette onto a blank tape.

However, Sugar's marketing campaign really attracted the public to the deck. A disclaimer at the bottom of the advert printed in the Daily Mirror stated,
"it is illegal to copy copyrighted material. This machine should only be used to copy material you have generated yourself."

As Sugar stated in his autobiography, the disclaimer was a "cheeky" tactic. Although the advert was within the law, Sugar designed the disclaimer in large lettering to attract the customer's attention. He explained in his book that highlighting the tape deck not being used for copying would persuade the consumer to buy the deck for precisely that reason. A person reading the advert would think they should buy the twin deck to copy their mate's Abba cassette.

Who would expect one of the top business influencers to capitalise on something so... anti-capitalist?

The fear of new technology

As you might have guessed, the music industry did not take lightly to Sugar's hinting disclaimer. Chris Wright, the chair of BPI, quickly retaliated by launching the new slogan "home taping is killing music, and it's illegal" for his anti-copying campaign in 1981.

The added "and it's illegal" was a bold statement from BPI. The trade association and record labels proclaimed that consumers "theft" of music was the reason for their decline in sales. Moreover, they insisted that the act of copying music onto blank tapes was illegal even though the laws around a consumer's use of bought music was (and still is) ambiguous.

Subsequently, BPI was demanding a levy tax on blank tapes to recuperate the loss of sales of vinyl and cassettes. However, the Government did not agree with the tax on blank tapes because there was little evidence to suggest piracy was the source of their decline in sales. Especially since UK's economy was declining and the cost of cassettes had more than doubled between the years 1975 to 1981.

Don't threaten your customers - it's bad marketing!

If there is one piece of advice I can give you, never blame your customers for your loss of sales. More to the point, never call them thieves and law-breakers.

Record labels heavy accusations aimed at their customers left many music fans feeling bitter. In the eyes of the consumer, home taping was a celebration of music. Now, fans could share their love of music and build a sense of community between genre lovers. You could copy a friend's album to see whether you liked the songs before buying - an opportunity we take for granted these days.

The blame game made it apparent that the music industry had distinguished a Me Vs Them attitude against their customers. Unfortunately for BPI, the anti-copying campaign had instead increased home taping.

"Home taping is skill in music."

Record labels had lost the goodwill of customers, and music fans created parodies of the skull and cross-bone campaign.

One of the more popular movements was the "home taping is skill in music" slogan. This movement combated BPI's stigma against blank tapes by celebrating home recording and the creation of mixtapes.

An important point raised by the movement was where does the line between consumer and producer lie? Blank cassettes meant consumers could produce their own mixtapes and the freedom to arrange songs in a particular order to listen. In addition, budding musicians could sample and dub each other's songs leading the way to Hip-Hop as a genre.

The parodies opened debates on whether home taping was the primary purpose for blank cassettes. It came to light that not all consumers used cassettes for copying music. A spokesperson for the blank tape industry defending themselves against the blank cassette tax in California stated that between 50 to 75% of consumers used blank cassettes for non-musical purposes. Blank tapes were helpful for educational, business and home audio recordings. The study further added to the hysteria of the music industry's trust of their consumers.

Yet, the attack continued.

"The worst of the seven plagues facing the music industry" 

uttered by Stan Cornyn, the Warner Communications executive, in 1982.

Possibly one of the most exaggerated statements spoken about a plastic cassette. But, Cornyn accidentally called attention to precisely the problem in BPI's heavy anti-taping campaign: home taping was never killing music; it was killing the music industry. 

His speech continued with a metaphor on copying music hurting the "heart" of the record industry. Consequently, his analogy unravelled what the word "music" really meant in BPI's slogan. It was never about saving the income of musicians and producers but instead protecting the recording industries that hold the rights over musicians' work.

A mix in messaging

Now musicians and music fans were mocking the anti-taping campaign. The parodies labelled the traditional music industry as greedy and limiting the cassette culture growing.

This culture grew out of the post-punk movement happening. Bow Wow Wow released a single on tape named 'C30 C60 C90' - calling attention to the different lengths of cassettes you could buy. They left Side B blank for fans to record their music onto it.


Following a similar path, Dead Kennedy's mocked the anti-taping campaign by printing "home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you can help" on their new album. A mockery that many remembered more than the original slogan. It smeared the whole campaign.


Unfortunately for BPI, the division in the industry was not just between the labels and musicians. Chris Wright penalised Island Records in his autobiography for creating "one-plus-one" tapes. The record label printed their artist's albums on one side of the cassette and left the other blank. In doing so, they were counteracting the unifying message BPI wanted from the record labels.


Ironically, Billboard printed an article on Island's controversial tapes directly next to another article on anti-taping in their 1981 magazine. Not even the media could decide which stance to take on home taping.


Now what?

Since it became clear the slogan was about saving the record label instead of supporting and celebrating the music, the campaign fizzled out.

The Government did not support taxing blank tapes because they viewed it as putting the ordinary person further out of pocket to support richer record labels. Moreover, authorities could not prosecute fans for copying music because it would break more laws invading homes to check for piracy.

Yet, the legal battle over copyright issues continues today: burning music on CDs, converting CDs into MP3 files, downloading music, and streaming music on media players have caused legal fights over what is permitted.

And, I'm sure the battle will continue with whatever comes next for consuming music.
Relive your post-punk movement by converting your cassette to CD with Digital Converters. We are the leading audio converting service in the UK, after all.