The DIY culture archivist talks about preserving artistic integrity, his home archive and extensive online database Tape-Mag
Frank Bull, founder of Vinyl-On-Demand and the extensive Tape-Mag database, is a meticulous archivist of cassette music culture. Despite fixing his gaze on 20th century DIY music and art movements, his ever expanding archive of artefacts taking in fanzines, tape releases and avant garde literature is almost unrivalled in scale, even in more conventional areas of creative research.
His appreciation of aesthetic and efforts to uphold artistic integrity are informed by concepts from his native Germany. Ideas such as Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a concept which translation doesn’t entirely explain, but which means ‘total work of art’ and relates to the harmony of artistic disciplines within a single work. It’s something you begin to appreciate as you survey his online archives or vinyl reissues: the way in which entries have been photographed and categorised, the attention to detail and tremendous forethought.
Though he is committed to his work and to best representing the archive and its contents, he retains a good humour about the perks and pitfalls of fanatical collecting. Dicussing his Tape-Mag criteria, his interests already range from poésie sonore (sound poetry), lettrisme and musique concrète to free improvisation, post-punk and synth wave, yet he’s wrestling with the idea of further expansion, of allowing for even greater exploration of these beguiling sub-genres.
What does your archival process typically involve? Do you clean, research and scan items before registering them on the database and storing or displaying them?
Everything I receive is properly archived. All releases and publications are scanned or photographed, then uploaded to Tape-Mag's CMS to be displayed digitally in a lower resolution (but still large enough to be read and examined). The database enables for relevant cross-links to be made between artefacts and associated artists, labels, publishers and publications. This way – if you’re interested in audio art and avant garde material related to the DIY movement – you’re able to do proper research on one platform and not have to search the web for information here and there.
I’ve around 20 tb of audio preserved digitally, indexed and named. It’s from various sound sources: cassette and reel-to-reel tapes, both original releases and [bootlegged] radio broadcasts. Thousands of my tapes still need to be properly recorded, and to do this I work with six tape decks and a mixing desk, recording simultaneously onto a computer. Due to copyright concerns, they cannot be part of Tape-Mag at this stage, as there is no academic/university partner involved that could validate the official research element of the website. I am in talks with several universities about integration of the archive media into their academic service – as this seems to be the only way to solve the issue of copyright when it comes to official streaming options. A great example of this is at Stanford University, which has more than 2000 tapes online from the Ginsberg archive. Elsewhere, the Tate Museum with William Furlong's audio art archive.
In relation to cleaning, an interesting finding is that the durability of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes seems to be a lot higher than was always projected. Only a few of the reels and tapes have suffered through the ages. The consequence of the low quality [tape] is a very low quality sound remaining on a cassette or reel, but the vast majority still sounds great. If they are too noisy, you can use tools for denoising and restoration, although this needs to be done very carefully, as too much denoising can immediately take away the character of the sound that the artist intended. For example, when I was working with Pierre Henri on a ten LP retrospective of his early works, we ended up using his original vinyl recordings, as it was impossible to enhance the material without immediately affecting his intention in sound.
Can you explain the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk and how it informs your method of photographing, archiving and re-releasing work?
Many online platforms place their focus on the data and pure information of an artist’s work. They never focus on the actual presentation and design of that work, which usually reflects its content. If the spirit and character of the release or publication is deconstructed with too many photos, you will not get the feeling for the work of an artist as a Gesamtkunstwerk.
What first kindled your interest in collecting, and can you remember the earliest or most significant tapes and art works you purchased?
To answer that question, you first need to understand my background and consider my role in relation to DIY cassette culture. As Joseph Beuys said: 'Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler' ('Every man [human] is an artist') and John Cage, 'You don’t have to call it music if the term shocks you'.
In 20th century avant garde art movement – where you aren’t part of a major value chain that can serve you with the best tools for production, promotion and marketing or exhibitions in galleries etc – you will most likely not be known and your works will not be appreciated and paid for. But does this mean that this output is less worthy, just because some A&R manager or some gallery decided not to promote it? Luckily, you had these protagonists that dared to invest their energy and money into a DIY mentality. You had Industrial Records and Throbbing Gristle inspiring hundreds of other artists to do it themselves and not depend on a label to produce music (plus risk taking out all your unique character with a producer). You had people like Bob Cobbing with his Writer’s Forum, Henri Chopin with his Revue OU and Cinquieme Saison with focus on concrete and visual poetry. This is true of any decade and any style: whether it be independent music, sound art and poetry, text sound compositions, poesie sonore, mail art, fluxus and more. The most significant purchase I’ve made is probably the original 24 hours tape-case by Throbbing Gristle. I was listening to one of those tapes every night on my Walkman to fall asleep better and it worked great!
You began Vinyl-On-Demand in 2003, releasing a six LP box set of Die Tödliche Doris’s work the following year. Did VOD and Tape-Mag both begin with the work of German artists and if so, was this the work that was closest to your heart?
I started releasing German tape works on vinyl as I personally saw that that history was not properly written. Artists usually like to move on when a work is released and concentrate on the next. It’s in their nature to be progressive, look forward and not stick to old works and habits. So many of these tapes from the DIY movement were limited editions that hardly reached people beyond their own local network. Luckily, after the cassette culture established a proper network and structure, it was at least possible to sell or trade 100 or more worldwide. It’s time to give those artists a platform with my label and to produce good quality vinyl that 30 or 40 years ago they dreamt of but didn’t have the money and networks to produce.
Tape-Mag is a concept I have developed over the past three years. While Vinyl-On-Demand has released almost 1000 pieces of media in its 14 years, I continuously realised that some works couldn’t be released, given the market and the nature of the art itself. They are still worth coverage and presentation in an online database, however, so people can see that they were released and were part of a certain movement, had a distinct character and something to say. To answer your question about what’s closest to my heart: I can’t anymore, as I left the status of a ‘collector’. Besides my vision and mission to expose 20th century avant garde and audio art, focussed on DIY and small print – I don’t have any other preference. But I do know that four people have an incredible, emotional part in my archival development. Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Adi Newton of The Future and Clock DVA, Adrian Smith of Another View and Click Click as well as Henri Chopin and Harry Partch. Their works would be the ones I would save first (after my wife) if a fire threatened to destroy everything.
To date, you’ve collated information pertaining to 25,000-plus artefacts on the Tape-Mag database. How has your relationship with the database changed as it has expanded and how might you respond to an individual who challenges its relevance and importance?
Most of the artefacts in the database are physically in my possession. I am still not finished scanning and photographing them. In fact, we just started photographing vinyl box sets – by artists who have their roots in the DIY, small print and avant garde movement – last month. But by taking the time to scan, look at items and properly archive them, you appreciate the work more and more, without even listening to it or reading it. You start to understand the intentions behind the design of a release and how it relates to the ideas within the music or written text. You gain respect for the work. It was never my purpose or mission to challenge people about the relevance and importance [of the archived media] as we live in an age with so many different opinions and mindsets. The only possibility to convince people is to allow them to experience it, feel a certain wow effect and reconsider their mindset towards the unknown.
Those in the online community surrounding your work often reach out to you with information, messages of appreciation and suggestions. What have been the most meaningful, heartfelt and important exchanges you have had – with artists or subscribers – since beginning Tape-Mag?
Before I started Tape-Mag, I saw Discogs as the ultimate reference for how to get people to contribute and support a vision and mission. Everyone these days uses it, even GEMA [the German, government-mandated performance rights organisation] uses it for research. 20 million records are sold on it per year, with eight million database entries, contributed by more than 326,000 subscribers. But still, I have mixed feelings looking at Discogs, as it is the perfect realisation of my own concept and website, called record-price-guide.com, which I established in 1997. I underestimated the decentralised power of social media to come and the possibility of user-generated data as part of a business model. I was trying to add every single entry in a centralised way, but never managed to get beyond 120,000 entries.
It is very hard to find enthusiastic contributors and motivate them to provide adequate scans and photos. When you offer a marketplace, you have people contributing pictures and information to sell items, but when you focus on scans and photos that should represent the release as a piece of art and Gesamtkunstwerk, there’s a compromise. The database includes 8000 artists that have released or published tapes/small press publications etc – so assuming they are still alive, it would be great for them to provide artist information and imagery, as this is one of the categories that definitely depends on the support of the artist themselves. Copying photos and information from Wikipedia isn’t really what I aim for. Luckily, some artists have already started sending photos and scans of releases to integrate, as many artists run their own labels. There is a little core team of contributors that share my mission and have started to provide me with missing information and scans. That is great and I really appreciate it. I also have a few that can directly access the CMS to actively contribute to the database. I’d like to thank Hal McGee of the labels Cause And Effect and Hal Tapes. He has been active since the early 80s and is sharing his information on cassette culture and his scans of releases, exactly as I wish them to reflect a release. I’d also like to mention Don Campau of The Living Archive Of Underground Music and his label Lonely Whistle Music. He is an active radio host and has been a supporter of cassette culture since the early 70s. He immediately understood my vision and mission and sent me 2000 tapes for integration.
You’ve had a dilemma recently as to whether or not you should integrate certain items to Tape-Mag. Can you expand a little upon your archive criteria and why it is important to remain true to those parameters?
The dilemma is that you need to restrict to a time frame and certain genres, as well as to certain formats (analogue tapes, reels and videos) to provide solid quality, otherwise you get lost in translation. The question has been: do I also open the system for relevant vinyl releases by artists that started out in the tape culture? You can easily open Pandora’s box and lose the focus of the site. But when you deal with cassette culture and artists like Maurizio Bianchi, Die Tödliche Doris, Enzo Minarelli, Henri Chopin – it is a logical step to include vinyl releases too, as the LP was always step two in those artist’s vita, and covering step one alone isn’t sufficient [to give a complete sense of the artist]. So at present, the website is to be reprogrammed to include vinyl releases and the research tools to allow for vinyl’s and/or tapes/reels to be searched. Even with a 50/50 split of releases on tape and vinyl, it still justifies the name Tape-Mag, as it’s a platform about artists that have their roots in the tape and home recording culture.
In years to come, what would you like to become of Tape-Mag and your physical archive? If the right museum or institution came forward, would you like sections or perhaps the entirety of your work to be an interactive, publicly displayed archive?
That’s exactly what I want to achieve with the archive: integration into an academic service. A living archive where people can physically research, look at, feel and hear about 20th century avant garde and experimental art and music. One which isn’t restricted to a proprietary place, but where everything can be accessible online to everyone around the world. The dilemma with institutions these days is that most of them have little money to properly scan or digitise their archived releases and publications. A book needs to be sent physically to you [to be digitised]. Certain books might be so rare that academic institutions would not send a copy to you. The only option would be to book a flight and get an appointment at the institution. The vision of Tape-Mag is to address this problem.
You have several institutions and museums that already work on archiving this important element of 20th century avant garde and audio art. You have the Neue Museum Weserburg, Bremen, that overtook the Guy Schraenen small print archive, including his incredible collection of artist books and vinyl records – doing selected exhibitions, curated by Guy Schraenen, every other year. As mentioned before, you have Stanford in the US and the Tate in the UK too. You have Francisco López and his SONM archive for experimental music in Spain, Hubert Kretschmer of artistbooks.de, with a focus on publications. If all these archives could be bundled, it could grow into an ultimate database.
What are your plans for forthcoming Vinyl-On-Demand releases and Tape-Mag expansion?
2018 will be fully committed to the extension of Tape-Mag and in 2019, I will most likely reboot Vinyl-On-Demand with a different focus. While the past 14 years have been based around producing deluxe vinyl box sets with accompanying booklets, the focus should switch to books and publications with accompanying media. While the vinyl market seems to receive the ultimate exposure – I think there is still a lack of secondary information about the artists themselves.
Right now, I’m working on three publications to be released in 2019. The first, a book by Jerry Krantitz called Cassette Culture: Homemade Music And The Creative Spirit In The Pre-Internet Age, that should include many photos from the Tape-Mag archive. Secondly, a dual-aspect book about Clock DVA and their frontman Adi Newton, covering the exciting Sheffield music period from 1976–81 and thirdly, a book by Andi Harriman of Synthicide. Andi has already written a book called The Postpone Project: Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Black, covering 80s post-punk and goth movements and when she visited me, we discussed the possibility of the same concept being used for a book about the industrial scene of the late 70s to late 80s.