Scottish traditional music and the accidental archive in the age of the compact cassette


Dr Stuart Eydmann

The emergence of the popular recording technology of the compact cassette coincided precisely with fundamental shifts in the production and consumption of popular music that included a dynamic and transforming phase of revival, regeneration and innovation in traditional music in Scotland. Adoption of the new tape format saw the creation of vast numbers of both commercially issued and privately produced recordings of the music, many of which still survive unseen and unheard in archives and in personal collections. Collectively, these scattered recordings constitute a highly significant resource for those concerned with the history of the progress of Scotland’s music and culture during a key, yet relatively under researched period. In the light of the tapes’ historical and cultural potential, their vulnerability and the fact that their original creator/users are now passing on, it is argued here that the time is right for a research initiative to survey, conserve and interpret their content and to make it accessible. Such a project should go beyond preservation by addressing why and how the medium was employed in traditional music, its role as an agent of musical change, particularly in relation to aural transmission, learning and memory, and how it came to affect the music as created and heard. These matters are highly pertinent today as we strive to address issues in the digital environment that the analogue tape technology primed and prefigured.

The period 1970-1990 was the heyday of the compact cassette. From the mid-1960s on, consumers had access to a wide range of modestly-priced devices of varying recording and playback quality, including those with a duplication facility. Portable models were readily available and cassette players were integrated into radios and home entertainment centres and used in classrooms, motor vehicles, public address systems. The ability to record, re-record, store and play one’s own sound built on the facility of the older, but generally less convenient, professional and domestic open-reel tape recorders that had been in use since the 1950s.[1] Easy-to-use recording and playback hardware made the new medium popular for a variety of purposes and by all age groups and abilities, including young children and the elderly. The cassette also proved ideal in situations where audio fidelity was not the primary consideration, as in portable entertainment, in-vehicle music, audio books and dictation. It was used extensively in teaching and learning and by individuals for the informal capture, enjoyment, sharing and storage of sound, both live and dubbed from other sources. Quickly, the medium was adopted into everyday personal, business, social, artistic and musical life and, indeed, the now-abandoned cassette tape has since become used to symbolise the whole period and generation of its use.

Retail sales of music on pre-recorded, factory-produced and commercially-distributed cassette tapes vied with and eventually overtook those issued on vinyl, with the same material being released in both formats. In addition, the range of recorded sound offered for sale expanded and diversified as the cassette enabled the publication of shorter production runs and the release of music previously deemed too specialist or risky for a disc pressing. Some record companies (including several in the remoter parts of Scotland) issued local music on cassettes only and many bands, choirs, organisations and individuals previously inhibited from releasing vinyl records on cost grounds or minority interest, found that it was viable to to self-publish on tape.[2] The extent of this activity has never been charted.

Blank, recordable cassettes were produced and sold in millions for personal use, resulting in the generation of an unfathomably vast body of privately-recorded tapes. Often without any strategic thought of systematic collection and preservation or as part of any project, amateur users came, over time, to compile their own ‘personal archives’ of audio recordings. While a large proportion of this has since been lost or disposed of, considerable numbers of tapes remain in the private collections of their creators and users, their families or heritors, typically stored in shoe boxes or plastic shopping bags, sitting on top of wardrobes, in attics or lying forgotten under beds. Fortunately, some are now safely held in archival conditions, although few of these have received active preservation or scholarly attention.

Ultimately, the position of the cassette faded with the arrival of digital audio technology, principally with the compact disc (CD) from around the mid-1980s, but also through the recordable Digital Audio Tape (DAT), the Mini Disc (MD), the recordable and re-writable CD and, before long, hard drive recording, digital file sharing and internet-streamed audio. In some areas of use, abandonment of the cassette had a very long-tail decline and, to this day, tapes are still used by a small number and vast numbers continue to serve as the original bearers of audio data.



Cassette tape adoption and use was a world-wide phenomenon and as such has attracted a degree of academic attention, principally around the role and impact of the technology within, or as an adjunct to, the commercial music industry. In part, this has been stimulated by early concern, debate and commentary on issues of musical ownership, copyright, piracy, illegal distribution, regulation and the affects that these might have been having on the vinyl-based music economy. Research has also focussed on small-scale and developing cultures (Wallis and Malm 1984; Malm and Wallis 1992), on the use of the medium in societies where gramophone records had never achieved market dominance (Manuel, 1993 and 1999) and on the commercial production and consumption of independently-produced recorded products (Bailey 2012).[3] Work has been undertaken on the cassette in Uyghur music in China (Harris, 2001), in political movements in Iran (Rahaghi 2012), in devotional practice in south India (Greene, 1999), on tape-borne sermons in the ‘Islamic Revival’ (Hirschkind, 2001 and Hirschkind 2006) among other contexts (Rodger 1986; Gooding 1998; Miller 2008; Impey 2013). The role of the cassette is discussed in histories of recorded sound (Jones, 1992, Millard, 1999; Andriessen, 1999) and in surveys of popular music in the late twentieth century (Shuker, 1994; Shuker 1998) and, again, the emphasis is principally on its role in the production and distribution of recordings within, or in opposition to, the commercial music industry rather than on the more hidden, everyday, personal and private uses of the technology and their musical consequences.[4] The role of cassette tapes in communist Czechoslovakia and Hungary is explored by Hagen and DeNora (2011) who consider how it facilitated new do-it-yourself creative, learning, commercial, interactive, and networked, unofficial practices beyond the limitations of the officially sanctioned gramophone record and radio while Andrea Bohlman has written on the “tapes’ capacity to reveal a history of everyday musical and technological fluencies” in Poland (Bohlman 2017: 119).

Currently there is youthful popular and academic interest in ‘cassette culture’ driven by nostalgia (‘technolstalgia’) and a fashion for low-tech, do-it-yourself, ‘hand-made’, analogue, music-making in the face of the intangibility, perceived impersonality and coldness of the digital domain[5] and other factors (Andersen and Pold 2013). Inspiration is taken from the cassette’s historical roles in certain key musical developments such as punk, hip hop, and home-made, experimental, underground, independent and alternative musics (Harrison 2006; McConnell 2006; Campau 2009; Staub 2010) and as a tool of political resistance (Jordán González 2012). Popular music historians are excited by the content of ‘demo tapes’ and by what is found on unauthorised ‘bootleg’ recordings of live performances. Also, the popular phenomenon of the ‘mix tape’ (including its associated ‘cover art’) whereby young people compiled and shared on cassette highly-personal programmed selections from vinyl records or taken from others’ tapes also attracts attention (Moore 2004; Madden 2013; James 1992, Drew 2016).[6] Writers variously refer to the cassette as an agent of decentralization, democratization, dispersal (Manuel 1993) and vernacularization (Moran 2014) in music production and consumption.

Research has now turned more towards the use of digital music technology and ‘born-digital’ audio (Manuel, 2012). Of relevance here is the current Digital Folk initiative[7] that aims to develop a new understanding of the ramifications of digital resources for development and change in the content, concept and practice of folk arts in contemporary England. In Scotland, a joint Collaborative Doctoral Partnership funded through the Scottish Cultural Heritage Consortium (with delegated AHRC funding) between National Library of Scotland and Heriot-Watt University, is examining the roles and relationships between ‘memory institutions’, individuals and communities in creating and preserving access to audio heritage, while assessing new models for collecting in the digital environment. Although it is convenient to view the digital domain as a clean break with the practices and considerations of an analogue past, many of the issues and popular patterns of use associated with the newer technology had precedents in the earlier systems, including the cassette, and it is therefore crucial that the preceding phases are adequately recognised and understood.


A misprized medium in the archive  

The cassette has always been regarded, in terms of audio fidelity and permanence, as an inferior recording medium by those with a professional interest in capturing and preserving sounds in the field, in the studio and in broadcasting. In addition, the ubiquity of the cassette and its popular use, has encouraged the view, among the public and in institutions, that the medium is less important than 78 rpm records, open reel tape or vinyl. This has consequences not only for how cassette tapes are handled but also for attitudes to their preservation and to recognition of the significance of what they might contain. Cassette tapes are therefore too easily consigned to that group of popular culture artefacts dismissed as low status, ‘in-between’, ‘rubbish’ or ephemeral (Baker and Hubert, 2015). Furthermore, as the generation of creator/users of the original recordings pass on, opportunities to capture and understand layers of context and significance are being lost. Urgency is compounded by the fact that cassette recordings deteriorate over time and professional standard playback systems are themselves becoming a rarity.

Despite their technical drawbacks and the casual storage they are often subjected to, the  robust housing of cassettes has, fortunately, ensured the survival of large amounts of recorded material, even where preservation was not a primary consideration of their creators or owners. Furthermore, the roles and importance of private collections of all forms of cultural material (whether deliberately or accidental constructed) are being increasingly recognised (Paradigm Project 2007) as such resources find their way into, or even form the core of collections held in public archives. Standards for appropriate curatorial practice are being discussed and guided (Harrison 1987; Toal 2007) and there are explorations of the potential of the personal archives in enabling community understanding, empowerment and identity (Johnson 2012; Brinkhurst 2012). There is also a fresh interest in the individual’s gathering and preservation of material objects (including the cassette) and in their potentialities, including why they are retained and what layered meanings they might contain. As with the vinyl record or the 78 rpm disc but unlike the digital file, compact cassettes are tangible objects that are worthy of understanding as things. Individual tapes can bear physical information and patina that reflect their use, multiple reuse and handling. They can also be layered with emotional messages and memories of the contexts of their creation, use and sharing, each potentially a miniature treasure box with the same potential as the artist’s sketchbook or portfolio, the photographic album or personal diary. Kuruoğlu and Ger (2015: 209), for instance, talk of how, in Kurdish music in Turkey, the cassette “becomes saturated with emotions, establishes shared emotional repertoires, and habituates individuals and collectives into common emotional dispositions”.

The broadcaster and academic Seán Street has recently written eloquently on the significance of the cassette, on the relationship between sound archives and auditory memory, on how this is a developing area for academic study and how such repositories, both formal and unofficial, are increasingly claiming:

… parity with what were once seen as more traditional paper and object-based historical repositories and access facilities. Things are changing, although… there is some distance to go in order to establish such parity in the fullest terms. Sound archives may preserve the transience in the medium itself, but they must also create opportunities to analyse, reference and disseminate the voices and sounds of the past in order to be truly ‘living’. (Street 2015: 115)

These developments are just part of an ongoing reassessment of the definition and function or archives of all types. There are parallels in the current reassessment and realignment of the aims of archival practice and scholarship in ethnomusicology (Topp Fargion 2009; Grant, 2012; Landau and Topp Fargion 2012), including issues of repatriation and re-dissemination of recorded material and the recognition of the value of archivists working in partnership with collectors and their communities. Recent initiatives include the Australian Research Council funded project ‘Do-it-yourself popular music archives’, an international comparative study of volunteer-run institutions that preserve popular music’s material culture’, work on amateur, community music archives and museums and other interventions into the archiving, preservation and uses of popular music history (Baker and Hubert 2013 & 2015; Baker and Collins 2015; Baker 2015). These sit within a growing recognition of the importance of the ‘unofficial’ archive and how it can challenge and counterbalance the ‘authorised’ (Roberts and Cohen 2014) within the wider context of “how popular music has become an object of memory and in turn a focus for contemporary renditions of history and cultural heritage” (Bennett and Janssen 2016: 1) There is an associated growing recognition of the significance of the ‘accidental archive’, “a set of sources handed down to us not by an institution but by people who never dreamed of creating a formal record of the past” (Ahrendt and Van der Linden 2017: 219) and calls for the development of appropriate new archival methodology. Two such areas where personal cassette recordings have attracted scholarly and professional attention are the family archive (Cox 2008) and private, technology-mediated, twentieth-century popular music collections (Mark Katz and David VanderHamm 2015). In discussing the former, Cox stresses how:

Just as … there is an increasing move by many individuals to care for their personal and family archives, a considerable part of the future administration of documentary sources such as sound recordings may rest with individuals other than professionals, from hobbyists to individuals maintaining family archives. Records professionals must be cautious and conservative, not necessarily taking a particular stance in debates about the value of one technology over another, but seeking ways to preserve all the document types that emanate from a constantly changing array of technologies. However, individuals, caring for their own recordings, besides looking for advice to professionals might have room for greater experimentation due to the necessity of taking some practical or preventive action. (Cox 2008: 54)


The Scottish Traditional Music Revival

The wave of popular adoption and use of the cassette coincided precisely with fundamental shifts in the production and consumption of popular music including significant stages in the rise of the wave of revival of interest in traditional song and instrumental music in Scotland that continues today (Munro 1984 and 1996; Olson 2007; Hand 2007; West, 2012, McKerrell 2016). The cassette was used extensively by musicians and enthusiasts in many ways including off-air recording of radio broadcasts and concerts for repeated listening and sharing and for learning aspects of style, repertory and arrangements. Music teachers made personalised tapes for pupils to work with at home and people would capture and distribute recordings of events such as house ceilidhs and informal musical gatherings and competitions for later, private enjoyment and reference. Capturing material in the field, whether for preservation, study or adoption, has always been an important aspect of folk music revival behaviour in Scotland and beyond (West 2013; Western 2015) and inexpensive and highly portable cassette machines enabled appropriately-minded amateurs, inspired by the movement’s high-status cultural leaders and scholarly collectors, to satisfy a need to participate in this.[8] As early as 1973, the influential music producer and folk music record company owner Bill Leader suggested that the traditional music enthusiast was already a special consumer of the compact cassette:

…for all the shouting they [the major record companies] do about the tape revolution, I don’t think it’ll ever be a substitute for those elegant round black discs. But as in so many things, the folk people understand the cassette better than the majors. To them the cassette recorder is every man’s Alan Lomax do-it-yourself kit. They use it very sensibly as an audio notebook.[9]

As higher-fidelity equipment became available, the compact cassette was employed increasingly in professional situations, although it always remained a low-status medium. However, for the small-scale, local or amateur performer or ensemble, which typified popular and traditional music practice, the medium offered many advantages. The boom in instrumental music making at pub and festival sessions in the 1970s saw cassettes used extensively by players seeking new repertory and techniques, functions that persist in the digital era (Keegan-Phipps 2013 and Keegan-Phipps and Miller 2018). Also, the cassette was an inexpensive and convenient means of getting one’s music ‘out there’ that could bring a modest degree of credibility and permanence to the amateur’s work. Musicians would often develop arrangements and compositions on tape at home before taking their ideas on to the stage or into the studio and self-produced, home-duplicated and self-released music on cassette was sold at concerts and distributed among friends. The potentially fruitful field of ‘micro-independent record labels’ (Strachan 2007 and 2014) in Scottish traditional music awaits study.

It can be safely assumed, therefore, that the scale of the privately recorded cassette legacy across all traditional music genres is likely to be considerable and varied. Nevertheless, it remains a largely hidden, scattered, vulnerable, deteriorating and rapidly diminishing resource.

The extent and potential significance of the content of privately created and/or held cassette collections of traditional music in Scotland has already been confirmed through sampling. In the case of Scottish fiddle music, for example, detailed scrutiny of a randomly selected number of cassettes in the John Junner Collection (Eydmann 2011; 2017) found off-air recordings, dubs from others’ collections, audio letters, recordings of house ceilidhs, much of which is of unique artistic, ethnographic and historical significance.[10] Similarly, the administrators and curators of several archives and collections confirm that they have had experience of approaches from responsible members of creator/users’ families as holders of important personal collections concerned for their future. In one typical case, preliminary cataloguing of the cassette collection left by deceased folk singer/guitarist Tony Cuffe has indicated highly significant recordings of self-taped projects, solo and ensemble rehearsals, concerts, tapes prepared for pupils, festival and session recordings and audio shared by other musicians (Eydmann 2018). Comparable ranges of data have also been found in the equally extensive family-held, personal cassette collections of deceased fiddlers Jock Ritchie of Fife and Derek Hoy of Edinburgh. The music of another deceased revival fiddler, Davy Tulloch of Shetland, survives on home-made cassettes sent by mail to distant pupils who have carefully preserved the tapes. It can be assumed that private collections compiled by bagpipers, harpers and accordionists are likely to be equally rich. Singers, too, compiled private collections of taped material, as did the late Jean Redpath whose recording are now held in university collections.

Sampling confirms that audio held in private collections is invariably accompanied by other related and contextual material (e.g. open reel tapes, manuscripts, photographs, programmes, press cuttings and other ephemera). Considered together, this ‘by catch’ is clearly a resource of potentially high cultural significance in relation to the history of traditional music making in modern Scotland, particularly as many aspects of the instrumental folk revival that coincided with cassette popularity did not enjoy the level of professional attention from song collectors that occurred in the 1950s and 60s.[11]

Several personal tape collections of Scottish traditional music are already safe in satisfactory, if not always ideal, storage in museums, libraries and formal archives, although most have yet to be catalogued, digitised and interpreted. Music clubs and organisations are also holders of important and contextually relevant collections of taped audio but systematic curation is rare. The extensive Edgar Ashton Collection Folk Revival Collection held by the School of Scottish Studies Archive at the University of Edinburgh and the John Junner Collection currently housed by Aberdeenshire Archives are both fortunate in this regard.

Outwith the archive, there is evidence of several self-motivated individuals undertaking their own digitisation initiatives. While this is to be welcomed, the cassette-taped legacy calls for careful selection and management and demands the skilled conservation of the physical artefacts and preservation of the audio they contain. This requires appropriate technical skills and equipment, all of which are too rarely available in public archives.

There are also equally important challenges beyond the immediate needs of locating, preserving and curating the audio material. Just as Malm and Wallis (1992: 110) found in Tanzania that “Cassette recorders have gradually started to play a role as mediators of the oral culture” and as Seeger (2002: 41) recognised how “many oral traditions today are transmitted in a new way: from tradition bearer to recording, and then from the recording to a younger generation”, there is a need to understand how and why the technology was used in traditional music and the ways in which it affected musical behaviour and practice, repertory, style and creativity. In the field of traditional music studies, with its tendency to privilege aural transmission and learning[12], this presents a challenge to received wisdom while offering an opportunity to map behaviour and change in new ways. However, such work demands appropriate ethnomusicological and historical expertise and experience.

The impact of recording technology on transmission, style and other aspects of traditional music in Scotland has not yet received detailed consideration, although scholars did recognise the impacts the cassette was having during the high point of its adoption. Writing on fiddle music in Shetland in the 1970s, Peter Cooke (Cooke 1986: 126-7) noted how the cassette was already implicated in music change there:

…as in 18th-century mainland Scotland, the tradition in Shetland is also still principally oral (though the teaching of the traditional fiddling in schools now includes the learning of notation). The importance difference is that the personal cassette recorder and the availability of discs and broadcast music (frequently recorded onto cassette at home for repeated listening) greatly facilitated the rapid spread of new styles and tunes. Ian Burns and Tom Anderson both mindful of the importance of the oral tradition, produced cassettes to accompany their books. Significantly also, several composers are not sufficiently musically literate to write out their own work, but record their tunes onto cassettes and send them to friends who transcribe the tunes for them. This is done not so much because the composers think that their tunes will reach a wider audience by having them printed, but because their copyright is safeguarded – a consideration that had no relevance at all in earlier times but is important now that so many new tunes are appearing on cassette and disc.[13]

Similarly, Roderick Cannon (Cannon 1987: 174) detected a revolutionary influence on bagpiping:

But most tapes are made informally. The tape recorder has indeed revolutionised piping. Most players possess one, and tapes now circulate as freely as did manuscripts in the old days, and far more effectively. Tape recorders appear at all major competitions. Some pipers object to this, arguing that illicit copying inhibits the sale of authorised recordings and robs the players of royalties which they should receive, but it is difficult to see an end to the present practice. More constructive developments include tuition by tape, a service which several leading teachers now provide; examination by tape, conducted by the College of Piping and Institute of Piping; and even competitions by tape, pioneered by the Scottish Piping Society of South Africa, whose members are scattered hundreds of miles apart.[14]

The traditional singer and piper Andy Hunter discussed, in a talk given at the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, in 1988 (Gilchrist 1989: 18), how he was using a cassette tape recorder as a creative tool in his composition of new music for the bellows bagpipes he was helping revive:

Getting to the process of composition itself he said that having started composing, he had got so involved that it was becoming a bit of a nuisance…

“I’m finding that I can’t take my pipes out of the case and start playing but I find myself doodling on something else!”

And composition, as he found it, was indeed a ‘doodling’ process on the pipe chanter. He used a tape recorder, which he found invaluable. The only thing was that, in his excitement in wanting to get new ideas down on tape, he found himself forgetting all about bellows control and fingering… the results of which became all to evident when he played back the tape!

There was also the labour of transcribing your efforts:

“I’ve filled about three C90 tapes, with not a single tune transcribed yet…”

There is recognition that the cassette had a dramatic and permanent influence on the parallel folk music revival traditional music in Ireland. In contrasting the practices of the older fiddler players of North West Ulster with those of the folk revival, “one of the most creative periods in modern Irish culture”, the music collector and writer Allen Feldman (2002: 108) observed that:

The cultural renewal was characterised by the turning of two generations of largely urbanised Irish youth to Irish traditional vocal and dance music; this was an implicit rebuke to the Anglo-American mass media messages that had inundated their daily lives through government-owned radio and television. From the middle 1960s onward young people reappropriated rural musical instruments, techniques and repertoires from a preceding and often culturally neglected older generation of musicians who served as their guides and mentors. This resurgent process resulted in a moderately cultural separatist, highly skilled and creative urbanised performance culture rutted in rural materials and transmitting rural cultural memory in both urban and rural performance contexts. This memory complex in turn found a new lease of life in electronic media, particularly the commercially produced recording and the privately collected session or festival cassette tape. Cassette culture, as in other parts of the world, mediated the emergence of alternative musical sensibilities.

The role of the cassette as an agent of change in Irish traditional music in Co. Clare was also addressed by Fintan Vallely (2007):

Yet as a result of the listening, assessment, appreciation competition base of CCÉ, and the theatrical, ‘club’ re-presentation and radio performance pioneered by Ó Riada in the new technologically-democratic era of cassette tape, the ethnic repertory revived. Inside a decade it moved from being emphatically a doing music, to being primarily a sit-down, listening music…

and more recently by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin (2016: 246-7):

The arrival of mass-produced cassette recorders in the 1970s generated a further axial swing in repertorial traffic. Cassettes were technological opium for the masses (and the bane of many musicians in quiet sessions who wanted to avoid the imprimatur of mechanical posterity). Reminiscent of the wax cylinder, now writ large, cassettes marked a transition from consumer playing to consumer recording….

In Clare, as in other parts of Ireland, the democratization of music technology facilitated by cassettes exponentially increased traffic in tunes and songs, styles and repertoires. Present at sessions, festivals, and competitions, cassette recorders give unlimited power to the punter who was now a sound engineer as well as a listener and performer. In opening the floodgates to spontaneous recording, cassettes also transformed the heteroglossic process of secondary orality, as direct oral/aural transmission was overtaken, if not supplanted, by literate and/or mechanical transmission. Although the simplistically described oral tradition is regarded as a sacred cow in Irish traditional music, epistemological and ontological evidence affirms that oral/aural transmission is no longer what it was once thought to be. In today’s digital age, when cell phone recorders are as common as wristwatches, direct primary orality has almost ceased to exist. This slow-moving transition crystalized in Clare in the 1970s, as the combined effects of cassette technology and musical literacy generated by CCÉ classes and other pedagogical trends edged direct primary orality further and further toward the margins of the traditional soundscape.[15]

Furthermore, there are examples in the memoirs and recollections of musicians that refer to the value and influence of specific cassettes that retain treasured recordings and evoke memories of mentors and friends or were the key source of important repertory.[16]


The Case for a Research Initiative

The challenges of locating, preserving, curating and understanding Scotland’s audio, including that surviving on cassette, are highly topical. The Scottish Government’s Traditional Arts Working Group report of January 2010 drew attention to the need for, and potential of, the traditional music sound archives informed by an awareness of the latent potential of the cassette legacy.[17] Around this time, a consultation on the provision of sound archives in Scotland (Atkins 2009) highlighted key deficiencies in the care of and access to audio collections. This recommended that national leadership in the provision for sound collections would be most appropriately undertaken by the National Library of Scotland (NLS), alongside the provision for moving images provided through the Scottish Screen Archive. The NLS subsequently worked with a variety of stakeholders of sound collections in the development of a strategic vision for a Scottish sound archive. Work was then put underway to develop a ‘distributed’ national collection of Scotland’s sound heritage, ‘Scotland’s Sounds’, to facilitate access to the audio collections held by a variety of organisations including museums, libraries and archives via a searchable single online resource. It was intended that this will help “improve care and access to sound archives and collections across Scotland” while vastly improving public awareness, access and interaction with holdings. The project, which is now progressing as part of the NLS Corporate Plan, fits with the Scottish Government’s aspirations in relation to the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage (Museums Galleries Scotland 2008). Also, the British Library launched its UK-wide initiative ‘Save our Sounds’ concerning audio heritage in January 2015 with the aim of addressing deep concerns that we have approximately 15 years in which to save the nation’s sound collections before they become fragile and unplayable and are effectively lost. In response, the library announced an initiative to “collect information about our recorded heritage, to create a Directory of UK Sound Collections.” This census, completed in May 2015, captured data on many collections in Scotland although these, and those identified by NLS, tend to be the ‘official’ public archives and collections rather than the large, harder to reach, resource of private archives that sampling has shown to exist.

Separate from the national agencies, the traditional music community in Scotland has also identified the need for action in relation to its recorded heritage and acknowledged its responsibility in advocating improvements in provisions. This was recently expressed in a report commissioned by the group Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (Byrne 2015).

Within the context of these national initiatives and in the light of the foregoing on the significance, scale, potential and urgency surrounding the cassette culture of Scottish traditional music, the field is clearly in pressing need of systematic, expert intervention and research. Such a study has the potential to impact on a very wide audience as sampling promises much recorded material of extra-musical interest to others, including unique off-air recordings, dubs of rare or missing master tapes, audio letters, journal entries and school classroom recordings of ethnographic value. Project data would also be of interest to those in cultural and twentieth century studies, archival practice and scholarship, memory studies, material culture, and the sociology and history of technology. The archival material could offer opportunities for comparison with other musical contexts, cultures, genres and places and would also have relevance to non-musical practices (e.g. language learning, teaching, dictation, interviews etc.) where the cassette was also employed.

Teachers and learners in both formal and informal education and at all levels could have access to reliable historical and musical information and material for developing repertories. Those in the traditional music community would find an important part of their history recognised and celebrated for the first time, filling gaps in understanding and making material and knowledge available for enjoyment, cultural reinvestment and stimulating and informing creativity. Those concerned with the legacy of recorded sound in general, in both public and private capacities, could draw on the project as a demonstration project in their practical and policy development work.

Echoing the advice of Seán Street that “access should be user-friendly for the communities to whom these memories ultimately belong: the groups and societies of which they are a record” (Street 2015: 124), the scholarly analysis and understanding of cassette recordings and collections would best be undertaken in partnership with those that created and used them and in liaison with their associated musical communities and that all such stakeholders should benefit from enhanced accessibility to their content and output. These individuals and groups are key to informing the how and why behind the creation and use of the recordings, in understanding exactly what kind of enabler the technology was and in addressing questions on why they have been retained and how they brought change on the ground. Engagement with the user/creators would also allow the development of specially devised cataloguing and classification systems appropriate to the genre. Fortunately, we still have access to the testimony and experience of a substantial, although diminishing, number of their original creators and users. We should act now.



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[1] Joe Moran (Moran 2014) has recognised the role of the cassette in the history of voice recording in the twentieth century, suggesting it helped to “generate new kinds of oral history and non-fiction writing” (479).

[2] Cassette-only based commercial music production generated a now obscure catalogue of music destined from the outset to be regarded as lower status as it did not carry the cachet of the vinyl product, was generally of lower fidelity and was excluded from broadcast by radio stations (Malm and Wallis, 1992: 149).

[3] The adoption of the compact cassette in advanced societies where the gramophone record was firmly established has been largely ignored. This is certainly the case in Scotland although it should be noted that the country’s recording history as a whole remains unexplored by scholars.

[4] Ruth Finnegan, in her study of ‘hidden’ music-making in urban Milton Keynes, identified and discussed ‘…the new form of “performance” to which the small bands (in particular) were turning: recording their music to disc or cassette’ (Finnegan 1989: 155). Writing in 1992, Jones (1992: 4) suggested that the widespread use of inexpensive recording technology and “the spread of homemade cassette networks” were “giving rise to another form of folk music” that did not fit into commonly recognised modes of music production and consumption.

[5] For some, the cassette represents a form of ‘slow music’ (the term drawn from the concept of the ‘slow food movement’) that counters perceived negative aspects of more modern music technology, particularly in education (Upitis, 2017).

[6] Curran (2016) describes a recent study of do-it-yourself cassette production and consumption in Edinburgh and Glasgow. There is also PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow currently working on the selection criteria and preservation of compact cassette tapes as sound materials in cultural heritage institutions, particularly those tied to popular music communities. See:


[8] Kay Kaufman Shelemay has written of the “cassette revolution”, an important phase in the development of ethnomusicological scholarship and its impact (1991: 285-86) and Shultz and Nye acknowledge the role of the cassette as a bridge into the digital era (2014).

[9] (Dallas 1973) The interviewer Karl Dallas noted that 1973 was the beginning of the Leader’s “one-man cassette revolution” as he was to launch a pioneering cassette-based folk music magazine containing material from his company back catalogue as well as “interviews, comments and commercials”. This was clearly an analogue precursor of the digital podcast.

[10] This range of uses and resulting material is typical of other large collections such as that compiled by Dr. Charles K. Wolfe and now housed at the Centre for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University.

[11] In a similar way, Emma Brinkhurst has recognised the potential of private cassette-based collections to enhance public archives while benefiting the community: “It is apparent that there are significant gaps in the BL’s [British Library’s] holdings of Somali music, with no recordings of popular music from before the civil war. Collaboration with Somali community members is one way in which this gap could be addressed, perhaps resulting in the acquisition of personal cassette collections, for example. In this way the Somali holdings could become more relevant to and representative of the UK’s Somali community.” (2012: 199).

[12] The cassette as an accessible and popular creative tool is discussed by Bell (2017) and is identified by Green (2002) as an “analogue practice” by which learners informally “picked up” popular music aurally/orally that was subsequently adopted as a legitimate mode of learning in more formal environments (Green, 2008).

[13] Peter Cooke recently recalled in a personal communication how, while crossing rural Shetland by bus in the 1970s or early 80s, the driver stopped to exchange cassettes of home-made, off-air recordings of traditional music, most likely taken off-air, with a driver of a coach coming in the opposite direction.

[15] The Scottish journalist Jim Gilchrist was struck by the popularity of tape machines at the All-Ireland Fleadh Ceol in Ennis, Co Clare, in 1977 noting “In the dark, winding streets radiating noisily away from the Square, fitful little sessions would suddenly mushroom shyly, delicate duets and trios of instruments in serious danger of being flattened by the descending cassette recorder-brandishing crowds.” (Gilchrist 1977). The song collector Angela Bourke, who was active in the Connemara Gaeltacht in the mid-1970s notes “I had seen my first cassette tape only a couple of years before, when the actor Gerry McSorley installed a tape deck in the flat he shared with Daithí Sproule in Dublin” (Bourke 2007: 43). Examples of archive projects of Irish music that have drawn on individuals’ cassette collections include the Inishowen Song Project ( developed in conjunction with the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music ( hosted by Boston College.

[16] For example, the Irish concertina player Noel Hill has noted how “…in the mid 1980s when I was living in New York. I spent many months uplifted and kept company by the music on two old cassettes; one of which was of Pádraig O’Keefe (1887-1963) and the other of Angus Chisholm (1908-1979) of Cape Breton. (Liner Notes Irish Concertina 3 Realach Records RR02 2016).

[17] The author served on the working group that prepared the report.