The word mixtape used to mean something entirely different to what it means today. Making a tape — either for yourself or somebody else — was essentially a curatorial exercise. A good mixtape was a highly personal yet listenable compilation of music, usually from different artists or sources, that had a flow of sorts, told a story or made an argument, entertained or educated. In rare moments, it could accomplish all of these things.
Using cassettes, you had to take into account the material constraints of the medium. For example, you could realistically only make one copy, so the vast majority of what’s been called “the most widely practiced American art form” basically consisted of one-offs (okay — some of us had double tape decks, even ones with auto-reverse, but dubbing a 90-minute cassette was still usually a tedious, real-time activity). Labeling tapes properly was also important. Music nerds insisted on all sorts of information (year of release, album, etc.) that was hard to fit onto the inlay card, even after they started making double or triple foldouts. Ideally, you had small, neat handwriting. Tape length was another factor to consider. A 60 minute cassette was a bit ungenerous as a gift but also harder to curate than, say, 90 or 120 minutes. To do 60 minutes justice, you had to know what you were doing. And the things had two sides. In later years, most people had auto-reverse cassette players so it became less of an issue, but the click-clack of switching sides still signaled a break in the program. Also, it was good practice not to overshoot the length of a side or have too much blank tape at the end of it. To account for the quirks of the medium, you either had to be good at planning — or trust in serendipity.
When given away, mixtapes were social gestures, between friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, love interests. They were made for parties, special occasions (the Valentine’s Day mixtape being a perennial favourite of course), to be sent through the mail (long distance relationships) or slipped into someone’s backpack. Mixtapes constituted a lovely mix between the material and the semiotic. They were a thing that cost (a little) money and (a lot of) time to make. At the same time, they were all about what was on them, what you were able to express through your unique curatorial approach. Your mixtape might be the only place where you could hear Tom Waits, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jimi Hendrix in the same place. Tapes were a way to express something — about the giver, and towards the recipient.
Once digital music became the dominant paradigm, we rapidly cycled through various descendant formats, but nothing was ever quite the same as the analogue cassette mixtape. There were mixed CDs — these were most similar to mixtapes but their era didn’t last very long, and the technology and skills required weren’t universally accessible. Then there were MP3 playlists in which the actual music files were accompanied by a playlist file that contained the sequencing information, and the whole assemblage might be shared using a USB flash drive. Something was lost in the translation, though. Most obviously, the new digital formats felt like the scale had been tipped heavily in favour of the semiotic side: everything was so easy to copy and move around that making someone a compilation lost the special, unique aspect related to the material aspects of the medium. (Or one might say that the previously democratic, accessible material aspects were collapsed into the digital mechanics of “how to burn a compilation CD” or “how to shared MP3s and M3Us,” thereby somehow making them the domain of nerds who became more like suppliers than sharers.)
Recorded music has gone through various historical stages from the perspective of the media used and the kinds of personal and public practices they enabled. Let’s say the first stage was the radio and records, the second tape and cassettes, the third CDs and digital music files. Recorded music has now reached a kind of “fourth age,” the streaming era. Like any technological development, this era comes with its own problems, notably that — in a near-perfect mirror to late capitalism itself — it has grossly accelerated inequality of income distribution to artists, who are struggling to make ends meet, in part because services like Spotify and Apple Music pay them so little per stream. The Covid epidemic has only further accentuated their misery as it is currently nearly impossible for musicians to generate income from live performances.
At the algorithmic back-end of the royalty distribution problem is the streaming era’s discovery problem. Finding out about new music used to be a social activity, at least in part. But as the radio became less relevant in listeners’ daily lives, and music listening increasingly turned into a private activity (headphones on the subway, headphones to protect yourself against intrusions in open concept offices) music developed a discovery problem. Despite the ubiquitous and instantaneous availability of nearly all music ever recorded, how are you supposed to hear new music? How do you find music that you like? How is musical taste shaped? Streaming services try to address the discovery problem with algorithmic recommendation engines which present machine-curated playlists to users based on activity tracking and increasingly sophisticated metadata. (Ever wonder how Spotify’s “Autoplay similar songs when your music ends” feature works? This is it.)
The sad reality is that neither the metadata nor the algorithmic recommendation engines are particularly good. Spotify and Apple Music know this and compensate with editorial selectors as well as listener volunteers who create hand-picked, usually “genre” or “mood” centered playlists. For my taste, it’s all a bit hit and miss — usually more miss.
In the last few months, as a lockdown diversion of sorts, I’ve been exploring collaborative online music listening a little more. Nothing real-time (even though that’s apparently a Spotify feature, it sounds terribly awkward), but rather to see how one might connect with musical friends now.
One initiative has been to make a vast collaborative “perfect pop” Spotify playlist with my friend H. The “rules,” such as they are, say that we each add one track at a time. The next track should either respond to the previous one in some way, or at least not be musically jarring (so for example, we pick things that are in a compatible key, etc.). We don’t actually have an agreed definition of what constitutes “perfect pop” — but much of it is upbeat, electronic, dance-y… the way that contemporary pop music is. Like one of those seemingly never-ending ping pong sessions on a sunny afternoon when we were kids, our playlist just keeps going, turn after turn. At present, it is nearly 8 hours long. There is no real point to it; we are simply trying to entertain and maybe surprise each other. We have a tentative agreement that we’ll keep it going “until the end of the winter.” I occasionally listen to portions of it while making dinner, and there’s always something enjoyable to discover, a new connection to make. H’s contributions have widened my musical horizons.
Another online listening initiative has been a digital revival of a particular group of three audiophile music-loving friends who, years ago, would occasional gather in one of their basements for a “listening session.” Here, the principle is that, for your turn, you play something you consider an amazing piece, either musically or in terms of audio quality (or both). Genres do no matter, and I think we like to startle each other with selections that might not sit easily with the previous piece. The basement listening sessions also used to involve a lot of talking — both about the piece, and general banter — so we needed something more than Spotify as our online vehicle (plus, at least one in our group insists on high-res digital streaming, so avoids Spotify in favour of Tidal). We picked Discord, a free, Slack-like chat platform, and that has been working well so far. This is also a low-intensity activity: sometimes days pass until the person whose turn it is posts their contribution. The only “rule” we have is that the other two are supposed to say what they thought of the previous contribution. It’s a frequent reminder that the music you love may leave others entirely cold. At the same time, a well-told story about a track can give it context and pique someone’s interest enough to explore further.
I used to make mixtapes all the time in the 80s and early 90s. Perhaps I even took this a bit further than most, being the music nerd that I am. I recently discovered a very large, very heavy storage box in the garage filled with 100s of tapes — my tape collection from years ago. It deserves excavation at some point. I’m sure all the magnetic tape has degraded in the meantime, and I actually no longer own a cassette player of any kind. But I’m mildly curious about the song lists, the cover notes, and who certain mixtapes might have been from.
I started passionately listening to recorded music and making tapes around age 11, so in a sense, I have 40 years of “curatorial experience.” The act of sequencing music has always felt satisfying, in part because trying individual pieces in different contexts sheds new light on them. As an “older” person, one listening habit that I’ve stuck with is the “album,” that now-antiquated form of pre-sequenced, bundled music, usually from a single artist. I audition a lot of new albums as they come out every week, and most don’t necessarily satisfy as a set of tracks. But one or two tracks may be standouts and as such deserve to be heard, perhaps specifically outside of their album context, which weighs them down.
So this year, I’ve decided to occasionally make a streamed playlist “mixtape.” I don’t have a specific listener in mind. I do this for my own amusement primarily. There might be a series of these, or only a few ultimately. My objective is to include good music, of course, but also to sequence something that’s listenable in context. Since streaming services don’t allow “mixing” in any technical sense, there will of course be breaks between the tracks. I also like to include short, “throwaway” audio bits that I go looking for specifically — little bits of speech, field recordings, a skit, poem or commercial here or there. I find these particularly useful to construct transitions between songs of different genres or in different keys. Plus, they’re fun: it makes it sound a little bit like a radio show!
This first edition is about 75 minutes of music. There’s no overarching theme, although to be fair, there is an aesthetic through-line that points to contemporary African pop and dance music. Enjoy.