Cassette Tape 2.0: Media Plasticity in Underground Music

  • James Vail

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis is concerned with the ways in which the cassette tape has been remade as a new medium through changing uses, social relationships, institutional arrangements, and industrial contexts. Declared a dead format at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the format has made a steady resurgence from the late 2000s to the present day. Drawing on in-depth interviews, survey data, listening diaries, and ethnographic fieldwork, this thesis examines the historically changing role of the cassette within contemporary underground experimental and electronic music networks that span North America, Western Europe, and Japan. It traces the multiple ways in which the cassette tape – as a phonographic media system – has become entangled with and distributed across various digital platforms. Expanding upon the work of Jonathan Sterne, I theorise a concept of media plasticity that is sensitive to the changing and overlapping boundaries of media systems as manifested within multiple historical layers of practice and circulation. Chapter 1 offers a review of the existing literature on the resurgence of analogue media. It provides a critique of the linear media-historical narratives that define the cassette tape as an obsolete technology. Subsequently, each of the four key chapters traces a genealogy of a particular aspect of contemporary music circulation. Chapter 2 examines the way that the category of media ‘physical media’ is produced through historically changing patterns of listening. Chapter 3 traces the changing role of the independent record label in a media environment characterised by an abundance of cultural material. It shows how many independent record labels have moved away from explicit political motivations and have become primarily curatorial organisations. Chapter 4 maps out the changing practices of ownership and cultural memory that characterise the release and consumption of recordings in contemporary underground music networks. It shows that the circulation of physical media has taken on an archival role in the context of precarious digital platforms. Finally, chapter 5 traces the emergence of a gift economy of support surrounding physical media. This thesis demonstrates that the contemporary cassette tape is inseparably entangled with the logics of several digital media platforms. As such, it is more appropriate to think of the contemporary cassette tape as a new medium.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorCaroline Bithell (Supervisor) & Roddy Hawkins (Supervisor)


  • Media history
  • Digital media
  • Cassette
  • Streaming
  • DIY
  • Vinyl
  • Media and communications
  • Media
  • Popular Music
  • Underground music
  • Sound studies

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