Featured, Opinion

For the Love of Mixtapes (and CDs)

January 19, 2017

If you’re of a certain age, the answers to the following questions will be obvious yeses…

Have you ever made a mixtape?

Have you ever received a mixtape?

Of course, right? Granted, unless you’re super hip (read: hipster) or cleaning out the room in which you grew up, you probably haven’t come across a mixtape in the past fifteen to twenty years. Mix CDs? Sure, but probably not a mix on a cassette tape.

I really hadn’t thought about mixtapes until a recent conversation with a friend…

I was telling him about the fall playlist I was working on and he asked me what my rules were? For making a playlist, that is. Other than not repeating any artist, I told him I didn’t really have any rules. Since the majority of my mixes have become playlists, I don’t have as many rules as I did when I was making mixes on tape or CD.

He told me that to this day, he keeps his playlists under 80 minutes. Do you know why?

If you have ever made a mix CD (if you’re reading this post, I’ll assume you have), it’s obvious. 80 minutes was the maximum length of the majority of CD-Rs. Even if he has no intention of ever burning the playlist to a CD, he still imposes that time limit on his playlists. As someone who made countless mix CDs, I still remember the challenge presented by that ever-present time constraint. “Do I cut this 6-minute track so that I can put on 2 shorter tracks?” Or “I love this song, but it’s 8 minutes long and I just can’t afford to take up that much space with one song.” That one doesn’t apply if you were maxing a mix of live Phish tracks. It was all about maximizing those precious 80 minutes.

Guess the longest runtime I ever had on a mix CD…

79 minutes and 56 seconds. It was a mix of songs by The Beatles with only 4 seconds to spare. As you can tell, I was rather obsessive about this kind of stuff.

After having this conversation regarding my fall playlist (which I decided to keep under 80 minutes), I began to think a lot about mixtapes, the predecessor to the mix CD. Let me take a minute to explain something. I am 38 years old. I have one child with another on the way. I have, without a doubt, hit the nostalgia period of my life. Fairly regularly, I find myself reflecting on the past and how great it was. Don’t get me wrong, the present is also pretty great. For example, if you told the 16-year old me that I would have access to almost every album ever made sitting in my pocket, my head probably would have exploded. Not to mention I am joined on this crazy trip by my wonderful partner (god bless her, she’s never read a single post of mine here), our daughter, our dog & cat, and all my wonderful friends and family. I don’t have a whole heck of a lot to complain about.

However, I associate mixtapes with a different time in my life. I was younger and with youth comes less responsibility. Less responsibility often translates into more fun. I also had a lot more free time. A good chunk of that free time was spent listening to music. I have such fond memories of sitting in my room and listening to music for hours on end. The music was the main event, not a side attraction as it often is now. There was no iPhone to browse while listening. No web to surf.

I have always enjoyed sharing music with others, so I also spent a lot of that time making mixtapes for friends and girlfriends. Especially girlfriends. These are the memories that are conjured when I think about mixtapes…and later, mix CDs.

Something else happened while working on this fall playlist that made me long for the days of mixtapes and or CDs. We’ll get to that in a minute…

First, as a lover of history, let’s take a minute to examine the history of the mixtape.

History of the Mixtape

The cassette tape was first introduced to the world in 1963. The “compact cassette,” as it was known, was introduced by Phillips Electronics as a replacement for the bulkier reel-to-reel tapes and was originally invented for dictation. At the onset, the sound quality was not great. However, the cassette tape had a number of things in its favor, such as portability, price, ease of use, and the ability to copy them. Over the next decade and a half, innovations would improve the sound quality eventually making cassette tapes the ideal medium for recorded music.

Two other inventions were pivotal in the rise of the cassette tape…

First, the inclusion of in-car cassette decks in the early 1970s. 8-track players already gave people the ability to listen to recorded music in their cars, but cassette tapes allowed you to rewind and offered looping playback. By the end of the decade, in-car cassette decks had supplanted 8-track players in most, if not all, new vehicles. By 1982, new albums were no longer being released on 8-track.

Second, and probably even more importantly, the invention of the Walkman by Sony. The Walkman was first available on July 1, 1979 for $150. The Walkman would radically change the way people listened to music. For the first time, people could take their music with them wherever they went. In a time where earbuds have become ubiquitous, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when portable music didn’t exist.

Sony Walkman Sports

Spent a lot of time with this bad boy.

From the very beginning, cassette tapes were recordable. Again, they were originally intended to dictation. However, prior to the introduction of dual cassette decks, it was more difficult to record from another tape. Recording from the radio was easy, but if you grew up in the suburbs like me, you know what a pain in the ass that was. The sound quality left a lot to be desired. Not to mention, the beginning of many songs were ruined by the ramblings of a DJ.

For the first time in history, the dual cassette deck gave the masses the ability to easily assemble whatever songs they wanted in whatever order they wanted.

Even when the cassette tape began to see a decline in its popularity, the mixtape survived. By the early 90s, CDs began to replace cassettes as the most popular medium for recording music. Recordable CDs, on the other hand, were still years in the future. This meant that people were still making mixtapes, only now they were using CDs for their source material.

It wasn’t until the introduction of CD-Rs, and more importantly, widely available CD burners, that the tape began to fade from pop culture altogether.

In Praise of the Mixtape

Granted, I’m nostalgic. However, there’s something more going on here…

Not Many People Have This Song, You Know?

Earlier, I mentioned that there was another reason why I was thinking about mixtapes. When I started thinking about what songs to include on my fall playlist, one song jumped out at me immediately. “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young.

There was one problem though, Neil Young had pulled the majority of his catalog from streaming services. I had the song in my personal library, but I like sharing my playlists with others. Unless the listener also had “Harvest Moon” in his/her collection, the song would not play. [Since I made this playlist, Neil Young has once again made his catalog available for streaming.]

This has become a consistent issue for me over the past few years. I can’t include a live version of a song off of a bootleg because the bootleg is not available for streaming. I can’t include Artist X because he/she decided to have an exclusive deal with the streaming service of his/her choice.

You know when that wasn’t a problem?

When people were making mixtapes. That’s when.

When making a mixtape, you could include any song. As long as you had access to it, you could include it on the tape. Even better, the recipient of the tape now had access to the song. That person could now include the song on a mixtape he/she made for someone else.

Speaking about making a mix, let’s talk about that a little more…

Do You Have Any Idea How Long I Worked on this Mix?

Making a mixtape took time. I can make a playlist in less time than it took me to record one song to a mixtape…even after high-speed dubbing became widely available. Again, I am of a certain age where I believe that the more time one invests in something, the more value it holds. As a rational person living in 2017, I understand this may not be true, but indulge me.

Making a playlist consists of clicking a few buttons. Dragging a couple things from here to there. No time constraints. No side breaks to contend with. No tracklists to write out or cover artwork to design (for the more ambitious and artistically inclined). Voila. Presto. Here’s your playlist.

Let’s assume you’re using a 90-minute tape. That’s a minimum of 90 minutes that you will spend making the mix. That’s not counting the time it takes to select all the songs that you want to include on the mix. Coming up with the track order. Writing out the track list. Getting the source tape to the perfect gap between tracks. All the pausing, playing, rewinding, and recording. Going back and re-recording half the tape because the songs you wanted to include didn’t all fit.

When someone gave you a mixtape, you made it a point to listen to it because you know the person put time into making it. Also, it wasn’t easy to skip songs, so you were essentially forced to listen to it in its entirety. Full disclosure, I don’t listen to many of the playlists people send me. I’m sure many of them are great, but I don’t have a lot of time and I know they didn’t put that much time into creating it. Also, there’s a good chance the playlist was sent to multiple people.

Can You See The Real Me?

Before social media gave us the ability to craft our own image, there were mixtapes. Summer Anne Burton wrote this in a Buzzfeed article on the fine art of mixtape seduction:

Someone told me once that mixtapes are barely about music at all. They are about which songs you hope will be forever linked to your face and subconsciously understood as your intentions. Mixtape making is flattering self-portraiture — like choosing the perfect selfie to express how funny, sexy, light-hearted, or endearing you are…preferably all of the above.

One of the most cherished aspects of making a mixtape is that it allowed you to say things to someone without actually saying them. If there was someone you fancied, you made a mix with songs telling him/her how you felt. If there was someone you were trying to impress, you dug deep into your collection to pull out all the stops. If you got dumped, you could put together a mix in an attempt to win back your ex. I can’t think of many other ways to say, “I love you,” without actually saying the words.

Having said that, it was a bit of an art form. It required some subtlety. One of my exes told me a dude had once given her a mix with Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love” on it. That’s what happens in the hands of an amateur. At that point, why not just make it a one-song mix with Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You” and just call it a day?

For better or worse, it allowed everyone to feel like they were a musician without actually being a musician. An article in the Independent on the re-birth of mixtapes describes it aptly; mixtapes were “the moment music was first put in the hands of the masses. For those who couldn’t strum a guitar, a mix tape was the ultimate expression of youthful (self-)obsession.”

Art of the Mix

If you’re serious about making mixes, there’s a high likelihood that you have rules you follow when compiling a mix. The scene I posted above from High Fidelity is a great example of this. I don’t have as many rules as others, but I do follow a few general rules when making a mix.

  • One song per band. Unless it’s a mix entirely of one band, this is one I follow 99% of the time.
  • I also try to have a general theme or tone of the mix. For example, seasonal mixes are pretty standard fare. My sister was moving from New Jersey to California to attend vet school, so I made her a mix in which every song mentioned California.
  • Song order is very important, especially the first and last songs. Pearl Jam setlists have greatly influenced my mix making over the years. I like to come in hot and grab their attention with the first few songs. Then I like to throw a softer song or two in between the more uptempo songs. For the closer, I go with what I call the “Yellow Ledbetter” rule. 99% of my mixes end with a slow song. It’s the comedown. It’s like a cigarette after sex.
  • As my friend suggested, my mixes no longer exceed 80 minutes in length. My laptop doesn’t even have a CD drive, but what the hell. I like the constraint it puts on the mix. Otherwise, where does it end?

I was interested to hear what rules other people followed so I contacted some of my favorite bloggers and writers and asked them to share some of their rules with me. I also included some rules that people shared in articles that I found while writing this article.

How can you tell if you’re a serious mix maker?

One song per artist.

That seemed to be the one rule that everyone follows.

David Greenwald – David is a music critic, reporter, and photographer for The Oregonian. You can view more of his writing on davidgreenwald.com and Rawkblog. I’d also recommend following him on Twitter. When I asked David for some of the rules he follows when making a mix, he said, “One song per band. That’s the golden rule. I’m always trying to connect songs that sound like they should be hanging out together, that have some sound or feeling or tempo in common.”

Summer Anne Burton – “I have very specific rules about crush mixes, having made a fool of myself with tape after tape as a teenager. The ONLY AND IMPORTANT AND UNBREAKABLE RULE of a crush mix is that crush mixes are not allowed to have songs that are explicitly about having a crush. Crush mixes can, however, include songs about all kinds of other things that evoke the feeling of having a crush.”

Michele Catalano – Michele shared these rules in this Forbes article. “The songs had to have a common theme (“I hate you and hope you die” was as common a theme as “I would like to get to first base with you”), it wasn’t good enough to just take a bunch of love songs and throw them on a tape. It was about so much more than grouping some tunes together. They had to segue. They had to flow into one another. Each song needed to be a continuation of the one before it, as if all these disparate bands got together and recorded a concept album based solely on your feelings for the guy who sits in front of you in English class.” If you’d like to read more by Michele, check her out on Medium.

Jessica Tylkowski (formerly of TinyMixTapes.com) – Shared a number of her rules in this Esquire article. Some examples include: “void Obscurity for Obscurity’s Sake,” “It’s a Mix Tape, Not Your Resume,” and “Don’t End With Your Best Song.”

Adam Sharp (songsfortheday) – This dude is a mix making ninja who slays his enemies with CDs crafted into Chinese stars. In this post, he shares all his rules for making a mix.

Taylor Johnston (Music For Ants) – What is this…music for ants? It has to be at least…3 times louder. While he’s working on getting music for humans, Taylor was nice enough to provide a number of rules he follows when making a mix:

  • I always think of the mixtape in two parts, Side 1 and Side 2 – Side 1 is where I put much of the most immediate/catchy songs to keep the people listening and Side 2 focuses more on riskier/less immediate selections. I like to put huge epic jams right in the middle (the centerpiece if you will) to break the sides up.
  • The first song is like the mix’s mission statement, it sets the tone and it’s probably the most important to get right.
  • Lots of variety on a playlist – I mix up genres, boy/girl vocals, fast/slow songs and I don’t put any songs too similar next to each other, I never put 2 songs by the same artist on a mix.
  • Pay close attention to transitions between songs, nothing too jarring, I always listen to the mix after it’s completed to test the flow.
  • The closer has to be one of the best songs. It’s the last thing the listener hears. A lot of times that’s where I place a song that’s especially meaningful to me or one from a personal favorite artist of mine.

Taylor’s seasonal mixes perfectly capture the feeling of each season.

Henderson (The Alternative) – Apparently, the guys at The Alternative didn’t get the memo that guitar music is dead…and I’m thankful for that. Henderson and his team are a great resource for those of us who still enjoy guitar music. He told me he has made thousands of mixes over the years and these are some rules he always follows:

  • Never put two similar songs back to back. Mix it up and keep it interesting.
  • Mix hits in with deep cuts and old songs in with new songs.
  • Try to slowly ramp up the intensity. Don’t go from a slow ballad to a hardcore track. Maybe put a punk song in between. It makes more sense to the listener.

Epilogue

Even though I am admittedly nostalgic for mixtapes, I don’t miss cassette tapes. It’s hard to go back to rewinding and fast-forwarding after you’ve become accustomed to picking the track to which you want to listen. Besides, I don’t remember tapes sounding that great. It was fun while it lasted, but the CD made me never want to go back to tapes.

A growing number of people would apparently disagree with me.

A couple years ago, I had read about a tape renaissance, but I didn’t believe it. It seemed impossible. I thought, “Who the fuck would want to go back to tapes?” Apparently, there are people who do. There are a number of indie labels who are now releasing new music on tapes. Yes, you read that right. At first, I chalked it up to hipsters. However, once I climbed down from my high horse, I could see how tapes could have a certain appeal to the generations that grew up without them. I have a vinyl collection at home, so who am I to say?

This is an example of romanticizing the past. It is common to be nostalgic for a time that you didn’t live in. If you grew up with tapes, you probably don’t miss them that much. If you didn’t, however, it’s understandable to feel that you somehow missed out.

As someone who is on the wrong side of 35, I feel we’re all missing out, but that’s what getting old is about. I reached out to a few younger people I know and they assured me that they were still making mix CDs. Not quite mixtapes, but still better than playlists. I had envisioned the oh-so-romantic exchange of USB drives or texting of links to playlists. Thankfully, I was told this doesn’t happen much…right now. My daughter? Odds are she won’t be making mixes on any type of physical medium.

One thing is for certain, the impact that mixtapes have had on society continue to be felt and will likely exist far into the future. At no point has people’s desire to assemble songs of their choosing into an order of their choosing diminished in any way. Whether it’s a mix on a tape, CD, or computer, a mix is something more than simply songs in a given order. They are time capsules. They bring you back to the time and place when you made the mix.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Karin Ahmed February 3, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks, this brought back memories! My best friend and I lived in different states, and we used to send cassette mixtapes to each other. She sent me one as a wedding gift. She died in 1999, and I still treasure those cassettes. I used to make them in different genres, like gospel, blues, Afro-Pop. One of my favorites had a moon theme, every song mentioned the moon. Another was all about New Orleans.
    P. S. I never had to go back and tape over, because I did the math first, adding up the length of each song and juggling them so everything fit before taping.

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