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Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Lost Art of the Mixtape

I'm not one of those people that looks upon things from the past with longing. I'm not nostalgic by nature. Maybe it's because I didn't have a happy or fun childhood, so I have no desire to look at the past lovingly.

That being said, there's one thing that I truly miss: The mixtape.

Allow Rob from High Fidelity to explain the rules:
Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do's and don'ts. First of all you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing. [...] You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules. [...] [It's] hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.
Here were my mixtape rules:
1) The first song had to catch attention, but you could not use Side 1, Track 1 of any album. That's cheating, since artists usually put their punchiest songs at the beginning of an album.

2) Avoid tape clicks. I would pause the tape after each song, change out the CD, then unpause the tape. However, you had to time it right so that there was the right amount of pausing in between each song. It was a very specific process.

3) Don't play the same band twice in a row. Just bad form.

3a) However, if a song by a band moves into another naturally and you want to preserve that flow, OK. Just don't make a habit of it.

4) The last song on the tape couldn't be an album's last song. For example, you can't use "Everything's Ruined" by Fountains of Wayne to close out the tape, because it's the last track on their self-titled album.

5) Try not to use the same songs on multiple mixtapes. Mix it up. Get creative.

6) Better to be a little short than too long. If the tape ends in the middle of a track, you've just failed at mixtapes.
All of this requires that you really, really know what music you own. You had to know not only what tracks were the best for each situation, but you also had to know specifically how long each one was so you knew how much time you had to work with. Could you squeeze in that extra track, or would you run overtime?

A lot of artists would put the length of each track on their albums. Bless 'em. A lot of them wouldn't. Curse 'em. When they didn't put the track times, you really, really, really had to know how long your music was.

One of the other quirks of the mixtape is that you had to sit there and put the tape together. If your tape was 90 minutes long, you had to sit there for all 90 minutes or end up ruining your tape. It was a labor of love that required a bit of sacrifice.

At the risk of sounding like an old man, making a mix CD doesn't have the same charm. You can literally click a few times on a program, have it check to see if there's too much music to fit on a CD, step away, and let the program make the CD. I know we can carry lots of music on our iPods too, and that's great. Really. It is.

However, what made mixtapes so challenging is that you had to pick just a few tracks that were important to you. You couldn't include "everything by Radiohead." You had to pick, "Which song is more important to me? 'Black Star' or 'Let Down'? Would this person like early, guitar-rock Radiohead, or more unusual tracks like 'Pearly'?" (This was before Kid A came out, by the way.)

There was nothing worse than sending out a mixtape that you slaved over and spent time arranging carefully and getting a tape back to you that was recorded on the quick. I remember setting up a tape with all of my rules and carefully curating a collection of music for a girlfriend and receiving a tape slapped together with 10 songs by the same person. That was a warning sign if I ever saw one.

I know mixtapes were a lot of work, and I know it sounds like a hassle, but it was a lot of fun too. When you felt the urge to carve out a couple of hours of your life to make a tape for someone, you knew they were important to you. A mixtape wasn't just about the music. It was about carving out time to do something important, to share something about yourself and take pride in the way you were doing it.