Tape trading is an unofficial method of distribution of demo tapes encompassing musical genres such as punk, hardcore, and extreme metal. The practice which was most prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s, also saw people distribute recordings of live music shows. Tape trading was a postal system reliant, penfriend style nature of an underground network that relied heavily on the cooperation of fans of different musical genres worldwide as well as the acts being promoted this way themselves eschewing any copyright in order to further spread their notoriety. Acts that gained a following through this might land a record deal.
The ad hoc system relied on a system of trust, meaning that tapes were swapped in a kind of honor system; those who did not subscribe to this ethos and received tapes without returning the favor accordingly would become known as ‘rip-offs’ or ‘rip-off traders’ and were regarded with scorn. Flyers advertising gigs, recordings and other merchandises for sale were often swapped in conjunction with tape trading. Music that had been licensed to record companies (therefore subject to copyright) and released in the format of Vinyl records, CD and MC (musicassette) was also pirated onto blank compact cassette medium and traded, although this was in infringement of both unofficial ‘rules’ of the network and actual copyright law itself.
Many traders would, unrequested, fill unused space on the C-60 and C-90 tapes of demos they compiled for fellow traders with local bands in which they were members, or acolytes of. This led to a musical cross-pollination between geographically diverse and disparate areas such as Scandinavia, USA and the UK and their own bands/scenes. One notable example of how initial contact through tape trading lent to this trend is in the case of Righteous Pigs guitarist Mitch Harris who hailed from Las Vegas and Birmingham’s Mick Harris, drummer with Napalm Death (not related) who would later collaborate writing and recording music, Mitch Harris would eventually relocate to the UK for this purpose. The very nature of the system ensured that recordings would decrease in sound quality with each trade and would in extreme circumstance become almost unlistenable, although the advent of recordable CDs helped the preservation of sound quality of recordings throughout trades. The popularization of broadband internet and digital music in its various forms has led to music by unsigned acts being swapped electronically and therefore tape trading through the postal system is considered by most to be outdated.
Heavy metal tape trading (notably black metal, death metal, doom metal) through the postal system is still in practice, but mainly as a nostalgic hobby. Most contact is made via email or penfriend-style snail-mail conversation.