The Dying Art of the Mixtape

Song of the moment: The Mixed Tape Jack’s Mannequin (look at me and my attempts at relevance)

Galleons, I really have no idea how old most of you are, but if you are younger than me, you probably only know about the mixtape from John Hughes films and the memories of your parents. Because my childhood was a haze of out-dated technology (funny, right?), I actually spent my early years (…up until nearly high school, I want to say) juggling those lovely things called cassette tapes. Therefore, the mixtape was a part of my upbringing.

When you make a music mix these days, you are usually making it for use on an MP3 player. It doesn’t take too terribly long (unless, like me, you are trolling through 60 GB of music in order to make said playlist), you don’t have a limit to how many songs you can put on there… Yeah, it seems pretty superior. Even if you are making a mix for a CD, you can add more songs than you could on a cassette tape.

But there’s an aesthetic sensibility that’s been lost. When making a mix CD or digital playlist, you aren’t usually concerned with track order. This is because, since the advent of the CD, we have been able to skip tracks at will. No more tedious and imprecise fast forwarding. No, we have the power to jump to whatever track we desire with just the push of a single button.

Thing is, during the heyday of the mixtape, song order was extremely important. You couldn’t just think about the mix as a whole- you had to consider each individual part and their positions relative to one another. You had to put careful thought into song transitions, into the near-narrative flow of emotions over the entire tape. As Nick Hornby wrote in High Fidelity:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention, and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.

How I go about making a mixtape (or, these days, a mix CD, because I still follow the old rules) follows a few steps:

  1. First, I always make my mixtapes for a person. My personal digital mixes tend to be long and rambling, but I only make mixtapes for other people. Specifically, I only make mixtapes for people I feel real affection for. So the first step is easy: Identifying who the mixtape is for.
  2. The next step for me is usually to determine what I’m trying to accomplish with the mixtape. Are the songs conveying an emotion or imparting a message? Do I want to tell a story through music? Nailing this down can be difficult.
  3. Here’s a fun step. It’s time to actually find some music for this mixtape! I start by combing my music library for any song I think would work. Usually, this list is pretty long. But it’ll go through a series of cuts, so it’s best to put down all the songs that could possibly work on the mix first.
  4. Time to start culling the herd. I already know who the tape’s for and what I want to say with it. Hopefully, I took that into account when I was first selecting songs. But, during that initial blaze of music passion and selection frenzy, I am bound to get a bit carried away. Time to sit down and, with my goal in mind, carefully weed out some of the songs that are obviously not going to work.
  5. I look at my list now. If I have more than two songs by any one artist, I immediately remove songs by that artist until I am down to only two tracks. Or, better yet, one. This is a mixtape, not a greatest hits album.
  6. Here’s where I pick one or two “anchor” songs. These are the tracks that I think really encompass what I’m trying to achieve with the mix. It’s around these particular tracks that I will build my final mix.
  7. This is the point where we stray into the artistic side of creating a mixtape. I start plugging songs in, fiddling with order and trying to establish an emotional arc. Sometimes, this happens fairly quickly. Other times, it will take me quite some time. Regardless, as I do this, I dump some more tracks. Songs that just won’t jive with the rest of them. Songs that are too much like the majority of the tracks. Remember, you want some variety on your mixes. Mix some slow songs in with the faster ones. With some practice, you can learn how to pick songs that step down from fast to slow or that build up from mellow to fast-paced. Always start your mix with a catchy song that’s not one of your anchors. Always end with a strong song as well.
  8. So, by this point I have a tentative skeleton of a mix. Usually, it’s still a few tracks too long. I will now listen to it all the way through (yes, making a good mixtape is time consuming, but it’s totally worth it). I will find the last few songs I can scrap. I will tweak the order. Eventually, I’ll feel pretty satisfied with it.
  9. Time to let the mix sit for a few days. I have not burned the final CD yet. I just leave the tracks in an ordered playlist in iTunes and give myself a break from them.
  10. After a couple days have elapsed, I come back to the mix. And, once again, I play it all the way through. Coming back to it with fresh ears, I’ll hear anything I missed before. I’ll tweak sound levels and the fade ins/outs of certain tracks.
  11. Well, there’s really nothing else to be done except burn that disc!
  12. Write up a track listing. This is a step a lot of people skip and it’s down-right aggravating. People like knowing what songs they are listening to. Do your mixtape recipient a favor and write the songs down. After all, you’ve put so much time and care into it already. It’s really the simplest step.

And that’s that. Mixtape completed. Deliver to recipient. Hope they enjoy it.

Now, I know that my method is really an adaption from old mixtape practices. I take advantage of digitized music to repeatedly listen to song transitions before I make the final CD. And I easily change music levels/volumes. All of this was possible on cassettes, but it was much harder than it is on good ol’ iTunes.

And CDs are great (sound quality is better, they can be stored neater and in less space, they hold more music, etc.), but I remain nostalgic for old mixtapes. For those battered little cassettes and their fold-out paper track lists. Their clunky cases. That’s why I can’t help but adore those little USBs-disguised-as-cassettes that keep the old mixtape aesthetic alive:

Anyway, all this talk of mixtapes comes from the fact that, during my internet blackout (during which I’ve also read half of Doctor Zhivago and a third of The Eyes of Heisenberg [Herbert’s technobabble in this book is fucking irritating]), I started a mixtape project. I’m still hovering around step 5, but I have about a month before this one needs to be done.

I’m taking my time to really make this one a gem.

OH! I also made a regular mix of Rain Songs (because it rained all day today!). I’ll share it with you:

Rain Bishop Allen
Laughter in the Rain Neil Sedaka
The Beauty of the Rain Dar Williams
Looks Like Rain The Postmarks (wow… too indie for YouTube)
September in the Rain Dinah Washington
She Gathers Rain Collective Soul
Rains on Me Tom Waits
Storms Eben Brooks
It Was Raining Devil Doll
Lullaby For a Stormy Night Vienna Teng (one of her best songs, actually)
Rain Fall Down The Rolling Stones
Only Happy When It Rains Garbage

Do you have any to add, galleons? Note that suggestions of Purple Rain or that horrid Umbrella song will be met with extreme violence.

2 responses to “The Dying Art of the Mixtape

  1. Heh, well, thanks. I’ll probably disappoint you, but I hope you have fun mucking about on this site.

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