Mixed Emotions

Why keep the mix tape alive in the era of Spotify playlists? An old-school music geek makes a case

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

I don’t purchase music the way I used to. By that, I mean that the process has become fairly complicated; it’s no longer as easy as heading to Tower, Virgin, Odyssey or some other music retailer and snatching up an armload of CDs based on what I’d recently heard on the radio. For starters, Tower, Virgin and Odyssey no longer exist. Compact discs are still around, but in an era where you can simply download music files—and at a more favorable compression rate than you’ll get on the average CD—there’s little point to buying them. And to paraphrase The Ataris, (most) radio still sucks.

So I’ve developed something of a tiered approach to acquiring new music. I read the music coverage of websites such as A.V. Club, Consequence of Sound and Pitchfork, and they tell me whom I should be checking out. I find those new artists via Spotify, which I regard as a kind of programmable radio. (I also listen to several streaming independent radio stations; Los Angeles’ Indie 103.1, Seattle’s KEXP and Las Vegas’ own Neon Reverb Radio are my favorites.)

If I like a song enough to buy it, I put it to a value test: Is the rest of the album good enough to own? If so, I buy it on vinyl LP; while I’m not the strictest of audiophiles, I side with those who insist that nothing sounds better than a vinyl record, and besides, they flat-out look better on a shelf. (Most new vinyl LPs come with a free digital download, so I can have that record in my iTunes anyway.) And if I don’t like an entire album, I buy the songs individually through iTunes or Bandcamp.

And then, once I have all that music in a place where I can manipulate it, I make a mix tape. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed in the way I listen to music, even as everything else has changed around it. Nothing beats a personalized compilation of songs—a personal soundtrack no radio station could ever give you.

Despite the name, a mix tape doesn’t necessarily have to be a cassette, or even a recordable CD. A mix tape, for the purposes of this discussion, is merely a 60- to 90-minute compilation of unrelated songs that’s made by you, or by someone who’s trying to get into your pants and figured, well, this plus some flowers and shit should do it. (I’m not talking about the related practice, currently in vogue among hip hop artists, of releasing a collection of new, non-album cuts online and calling it a “mixtape,” without a space between the words. Though I like those, too.)

Poet and essayist Geoffrey O’Brien called mix tapes “the most widely practiced American art form.” I’d venture that most everyone has made a mix tape. The ritual is so ingrained in us that it has often featured prominently in our pop culture: both the books and films of High Fidelity and The Perks of Being a Wallflower have featured mix tapes as tools of self-actualization. And the hero of the Marvel space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord, actually weaponized his mix tape: He used it as a distraction that helped him and his friends to defeat a galactic tyrant. Try doing that with something as dull and safe as broadcast radio.

Fossilized mixtape: Experts have dated this find, now buried at the corner of Charleston and 10th Street, to the late Spice Girls period. | Photo by Geoff Carter.

Fossilized mix tape: Experts have dated this find, now buried at the corner of Charleston and 10th Street, to the late Spice Girls period. | Photo by Geoff Carter.

Mix tapes are a kind of personal storytelling. They’re the literal soundtrack to your life—your most beloved songs, sequenced in such a way as to manipulate someone else’s emotions—or, more likely, your own. You can make them when you’re in love, or when you’re heartbroken. You can make them to impress friends with how much of a music snob you are. You can make them for road trips or international flights; you can bring them to the beaches of Ibiza or to the gates of Dollywood. Mix tapes are the souvenirs you get before you embark on an adventure. Years after the fact, you can pop a good one into the stereo and remember everything that went with that assortment of songs—the sights, the sounds, the tastes.

Just talking about this floods my head with songs and memories. I can’t think of Kula Shaker’s “Mystical Machine Gun” or Underworld’s “Jumbo” without remembering how it felt to lie on the beaches of Southern Thailand, November 1999. The The’s “The Beaten Generation” and Hunters & Collectors’ “Back on the Breadline” remind me of driving a moving van to Las Vegas in October 1989. And because these songs segued into each other on their respective mix tapes, I can’t hear one without thinking of the other. Every song on a mix tape is a link in a chain of memories.

I’ve been making mix tapes since 1985, on cassettes, recordable CDs and now MP3s. I have a goddamned tradition to uphold; the latest volume of my chill-out compilation series, which I began in 2004 as a tool for calming my nerves after a day of work at the Seattle Times, breaks this winter. Volume 14 of the Anime for Commuters series is something I’m taking very seriously; I’ll probably revise the final playlist a dozen times and spend hours messing with individual tracks in Audacity—adjusting volume levels, editing songs for length—before I share the mix with my friends.

If you’ve never made one, you’re missing out on something greater than cutting a bunch of songs together. You’re denying yourself the full benefit of what music has to offer. And as we get deeper into the Spotify playlist era, I worry that our music listening will become less exciting, less adventurous. We’ll lose some of our ability to take that song and make it our song.

The reason I don’t simply make a streaming service playlist and send it to friends is because those services are designed to be impersonal. Spotify and its like reduce music to math: If you like listening to bands A and B, then surely you’ll like band C, and we’ll keep pushing C on you until you love it. It doesn’t take into account how you might feel about a certain song when you’re listening to it at your desk at work versus when you’re drifting in and out of sleep on a sunny beach.

There are other, more practical reasons a Spotify playlist won’t work for me, among them an acute lack of choice. Many of the artists I’ve included in the Commuters series are missing entire albums from their Spotify libraries because of licensing issues. (Plaid and DeVotchKa are good examples of this.) Some have pulled much of their music from the service to protest the trifling royalties the service pays out, as Thom Yorke has done. Others barely appear on the service at all, as is the case with Yoko Kanno, the Japanese composer whose music inspired the Commuters series in the first place.

A Spotify playlist is too easy to change. Over time, you might get sick to death of “Hotline Bling,” and you’ll purge it from a favorite playlist—perhaps oblivious to the fact that you just edited away a telling piece of your own narrative. Mix tapes are photographs of where we are at a point in our lives, and like pictures, they are locked and permanent. We may not like the faces we see around us in those old snapshots, but photoshopping them out changes our memories of the past. Mix tapes help to remind us who we were, so we can be more certain of who we are now.

Also, I’m annoyed that streaming services offer no good way to tailor our music listening to our complete liking. If a song has an extended ending that we’d rather fade out, or a dumb spoken-word intro we’d rather do without, tough shit; Spotify gives you the songs the way everyone else hears them. That is to say, when they can give them to you at all: It only takes one Taylor Swift making a wholly justified noise about artist compensation, and suddenly, every Prince album is pulled from Spotify, rendering your “Netflix and Chill Jams Vol. 1” playlist largely inert.

I’ll readily admit Spotify is a decent tool for finding music both new and old. Using it has actually made my mixes better; it has allowed me to find music I might never have discovered before now. But by itself, it’s too cold and too unreliable an instrument to assemble something as nuanced and human as a mix tape.

Yes, human. Mix tapes are a human art, an imperfect art. If you’re anything like me, some of the mix tapes you’ve made are kinda sucky. But they’re a genuine expression of your love for music, which is nothing if not personal. And every once in a while, you can make a mix tape that helps you to get over a breakup, or that calms your nerves on the commute home. You, too, can make a mix tape that saves the galaxy.

A Few Tips on Making a Mixtape

First, get your sequence down; consider how your songs relate to each other, and try to arrange them into emotional peaks and valleys. Pay attention to time: Even if you’re just making an MP3 mix, keep it within 90 minutes. Any longer than that and you risk losing thematic cohesion. (Plus, you’ll get tired of listening to it well before it’s done.) I generally keep my mixes to 80 minutes, in case someone would like for me to burn it to a CD.

On the engineering side, watch your sound levels. Some tracks are louder and some are quieter; try to get them all into the same neighborhood, using a free program such as Audacity or the volume input controls on your cassette deck. (If you’re actually using a cassette deck—go, you!—be sure to wind the tape to the end of the leader, using a pencil or your pinky, before you hit record. Use every centimeter of tape available to you.)

There are other rules you can follow: Don’t repeat artists, don’t use too much non-song dialogue, don’t fade out tracks. I have broken every one of these rules in making mix tapes, and I suggest you do, too. No art form was ever advanced by coloring within the lines, or by compiling songs from a list made by someone else.