Back in the day, tape trading was the foundation of the metal underground - a grass roots foundation on which many bands built their careers.
It certainly provided a strong foundation for Metallica and K.J. Doughton, who ran the band's fan club from the demo days up until the mid-eighties. For part two of this story, MadeLoud talks to K.J. about his days as a rabid tape trader in the metal underground.
When you first started tape trading, do you recall any rules or codes of conduct about trading? For example, that money shouldn't exchange hands, or if it does, it only goes towards tapes and postage - that kind of thing?
Money was considered kind of irrelevant back in the day, when no one understood that commerce and wealth really do rule the world. Back then, trading was just a way of sharing enthusiasm, of saying, "This is great, and I want to get the word out to you, because you're one of us and understand." The mission was to promote these bands to a higher level. It was kind of a nose-thumb to the music industry: "If you can't understand this, we'll keep shoving it into your face until you do." It was a real underdog, us-against-them kind of vibe.
Styx and REO Speedwagon were considered "heavy" at the time, and were the only groups to receive airplay or recognition. Meanwhile, the tape traders were pushing Metallica, Exodus, Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Yngwie Malmsteen, Metal Church, Megadeth, Trouble, Sweet Savage, and tons more. It made life more interesting than Journey and Foreigner.
Roger Steffens, the reggae archivist and Bob Marley collector I interviewed in Part One, knew the people he traded with. If he ever found out anyone was making money off the music, they’d get banned from trading with him. When you were trading, would traders get blacklisted if they ripped people off or exploited the music?
I don't think people took it that seriously. There weren't any written-in-stone rules. If someone ripped you off and didn't send tapes during a trade, it was likely that business with them would simply stop. Kind of like the current eBay honors/credit system. But it was an innocent time, and people were doing this out of a genuine love of the genre. It was more for fun than anything else, which made it great. It wasn't about money or business. The corruption aspect really wasn't relevant.
How much impact do you feel the underground had back in the day? Could Metallica and innumerable other bands have gotten anywhere without it?
I think the underground traders were a huge part of these bands' successes. At the time, there was no Internet, no file sharing, no YouTube. Only snail mail. Big labels hated metal. So what other alternatives were there? A net of obsessed noise junkies sending demos back and forth, out for what (fellow Metallica supporter) Ron Quintana once called, "The Neverending Search for the Great Crunching Chord." We were it.
Do you feel there will come a day where people will pay for music again, or do you feel we’ve turned a corner and there’s no going back?
I think we've definitely turned a corner in which there is no going back. Inevitably, someone will come up with a creative way of taking back control of their music so that they can get reimbursed. I enjoy the ease in which the Internet allows access to music as much as anyone does. Back in the tape trading days, we didn't have anywhere near the access to so many types of music and bands. On the other hand, bands can't survive without somehow getting reimbursed, so this new, often free access can be a double-edged sword.
I enjoy access to music online, but can understand bands' frustrations with so many free ways people can get to their material without them getting reimbursed. As Lips stated in Anvil: The Movie, "We're not getting paid!" I think back then, there weren't as many ways to access music so instantaneously, so the demo trading and the commercial vinyl releases could live in harmony. Today, something gets downloaded onto a file-sharing service, and a million people can download it immediately. That was never a risk back in the early eighties, when technology was still primitive. It took effort to send a demo or bootleg across the country, and much more effort to pirate music.
The metal trading circuit of the early eighties helped the industry by building anticipation around the release of vinyl by bands that had previously only had demo tapes and hadn't been signed to labels. It caused a slow, word-of-mouth buzz that led to increased album sales. When bands finally did release official records, it was a celebration. Today, I think it's a bit different in that people can access new music that artists used to get paid for, right off the bat. There's no buildup. Wham - the music is out there for everyone to download once it leaks. It's easier to get what used to be "official" label music before the band has even reaped the rewards of what they've sown.
In the age of file sharing, could a new underground come up like in the old days but in digital form?
I don't think there could ever be a new underground comparable to the eighties tape trading scene. It's a whole new thing now. There's very little allegiance to the same bands or genres and people have lower attention spans now. They quickly gravitate from band to band, and there's less inclination to follow a few favored bands throughout a long career. Think back to bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Metallica, Aerosmith, and Kiss. Fans maintained loyalty for decades, and still do with those bands who currently continue. It's more disposable now. There was a certain loyalty to the genre back then that I don't see today. I think part of it was the need to establish and maintain relationships with other people back then. You needed to write letters, and actually communicate, creating friends in the process of exchanging music on a very tangible level. There was a brotherhood. Now, communication is virtual and there isn't this reliance on one another, or the ability to meet people in the flesh and establish real relationships that kind of transcended simple music trading.
Looking back on your tape trading days, what are your fondest memories, and how do you feel about bands putting their old demos out again on iTunes and YouTube so younger metal fans can do their homework?
I think it's amazing that so much material is so easily accessible. The other day, I watched a bunch of old UFO snippets off YouTube. I feel like a little kid in a candy store finding stuff like that. But there's something a little superficial concerning the new technology as well. I recently interviewed Lips from Anvil, who talked about how even with virtual access to metal, the diehard fans still needed the "hard copy,” like tangible records, demo tapes, old magazines, etc.. I'm older and more sentimental about this kind of thing, and would have to agree with him.
As far as fondest memories, certainly it boils down to the friendships forged during the whole tape-trading phenomenon. Metallica invited me and several other early metal traders and fanzine editors from their earliest days to their recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in Cleveland last April. With so many friends, it was like a high school reunion but much more emotional. All of us shared in a unique cultural movement that we all know will never be duplicated. The tapes came and went, but the relationships have continued for lifetimes.