Music Piracy In… The 1980s

01.21.11 Posted in Blog by

During the last weeks, several blogs wrote about what can be expected of the music piracy debates in 2011. While these articles pointed at the future of ‘the war’ on music piracy, here I will continue to raise some historical awareness to place today’s and tomorrow’s anti-piracy efforts in perspective. After I previously discussed what music piracy looked like before the advent of the music industry, in the 1900s, the 1910s, and in the 1950s, this post will continue with an analysis of music piracy in the 1980s.

In the 1980s the character of music piracy breaks radically with the character of the piracy cultures in the decades before. In contrast with the industrial and centralized music piracy cultures that were common until then, music piracy from the 1970s on really becomes a decentralized and domestic practice. This decentralized character of music piracy, which continues until today, was initiated by and can largely be attributed to the popularity of tape.

A Revolution Initiated By Tape

The roots of tape, and thus of music piracy in the 1980s, can be traced back to the late 1940s. At that time tape entered the domestic sphere for the first time with reel-to-reel tape systems that became a presence in several U.S. households. These reel-to-reel systems, although still being bulky in their nature due to the large size of the actual tape, made the recording and copying of music easier than ever before. Looking back, the reel-to-reel systems may seem complicated machines but as domestic habits of use developed, these systems initiated a revolutionary shift in the place where creation and reproduction took place. A shift from the factory to the home.

The Success Of The Cassette

In 1963, while vinyl was still the dominant medium for music, Philips introduced the Musicassette that would eventually become popular as the Compact Cassette. It was smaller, cheaper, and much easier to use than reel-to-reel tape and thanks to open standards, other companies were encouraged to license it, which increased the speed of the spread of this technology. The cassette became the standard format for tape recording and thus the standard for music piracy in the 1970s and 1980s.

A real mass market for home recording emerged. One could record LPs onto cassettes and swap these cassettes with friends. The cassettes could also be rerecorded and by making mixtapes for friends and family, individuals for the first time could feel a sense of authorship. In 1983, partly due to the introduction of the Walkman, the sales of cassettes even surpassed the sales of vinyl.

Anti-Piracy Campaigns

The success of the blank cassette did not go unnoticed by the music industry. It sold prerecorded tapes but because of the decentralized nature of home taping and the domestic sphere in which it took place the tactics used to prevent for music piracy had to change. Therefore, the industry began with campaigns that stated that home taping was a threat to music. The most famous example of this was the Home Taping Is Killing Music campaign, initiated by the British Phonographic Industry. It reasoned that a decline in music sales due to home copying could result in less revenue for the music industry, negatively influencing the investments in new music and thereby ruining the future of the industry. A narrative that is still being used today.

What contrasted the music piracy culture surrounding cassettes in the 1980s with the previously described piracy cultures was the noncommercial nature of it. Before, music piracy often came forth from ideals but it was largely a commercial enterprise. From the success of the cassette on however, music piracy became a decentralized, noncommercial, and domestic practice. Music piracy was being democratized.

This post is part of the ‘Music Piracy In…’ series. For more information about this series, take a look at this introductory post.

3 Responses to “Music Piracy In… The 1980s”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bas Grasmayer, Robin Wildekamp. Robin Wildekamp said: RT @Spartz: Music Piracy In… The 1980s […]

  2. […] The history of the entertainment and media industry is riddled with moments of doubt and fear everytime a new technology is released, such as when Floppy Disks were sufficient methods of Data storage or when cassette tapes were used to store your music.  […]

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