Mix Tapes

I warn you that this post is going to make me sound like an old fogy, for I plan to pay tribute to the cassette tape. The compact plastic case with its wheels, reels, and delicately threaded brown gossamer. Anyone who has ever had a cassette break open and try to put it back together again knows how complex a device it really is.

I first discovered the joy of tapes as a child of five years old with a simple tabletop tape recorder my sister and I shared. We taped everything and everyone, including a plea to our father for a pet cat. But the real fun began with my First Communion gift, a tape radio! I would tape songs off the radio and record my own voice in-between doing station id’s for WLTS in preparation for my dream job as a DJ (fulfilled on WCWM-FM in college).

CD’s arrived in the early 80’s but took a while to catch on. By the time I was in high school, the richer kids (basically everyone but me) had switched to CD’s. In college, I acquired a few CD’s but remained devoted to buying cassettes, even arguing about their superiority over CD’s (for one, you can record on them!). By the time I finished college, it was hard to find tapes for sale anymore. Now even CD’s have been usurped by digital media and I don’t even have a functional tape player anymore.

Which is why when Susan suggested a few months ago that I get rid of my tapes, I didn’t put up much of a fight. I once met some students at University of Chicago who hung racks of 800+ cassettes on their dorm room wall, which I thought was the coolest thing every. I finally got to replicate the idea, hanging my 300+ tapes on the wall in my apartment in Somerville 9 years ago. Even then it was more of a monument to something outdated and underused than a demonstration of cool musical tastes. They had to come down.

And so I threw out a bunch of tapes (many already upgraded to CD & mp3), gave away some I couldn’t bear to trash, and kept the ones that couldn’t be replaced. These were a few rare cassettes I’ve picked up at shows over the years and my mix tapes.

The latter are a tribute to the great gifts of music my friends over the years. Mix tapes are a lost art. People still make them on CD’s or as mp3 playlists, and even still call them mix tapes but they’re not the same.

For one thing, a cassette has two sides. This creates a theatrical opportunity for a selection of songs in two acts. When I made mix tapes I almost always started with an instrumental piece on side A, then finish off side A with a rocker that made the listener eager to flip over and listen to more. The side B opener would be connected thematically, musically, or lyrically to the last song on side A, but set the tone for a change of pace on side B. Then the whole mix would conclude with the best song I had to share for the finale.

I have quite eclectic music tastes and it was fun to find songs of different musical genres that I could tie together by some commonality: a rhythmn, a lyric, a motif. Then again, stark contrast also made for good listening. Why not follow Enya with the Sex Pistols? I don’t mean to toot my horn too much but my friends always complimented me for making excellent mix tapes and introducing them to some great music.

Of course, there are some who consider mix tapes stealing, the type of piracy the RIAA fights against. I personally consider it promotion. I can tell you how many albums I bought because I liked one or two songs a friend shared with me on a mix tape. That and the fact that the mix tape is an art of itself, showing songs in a context their creators never imagined. Mix tapes in a sense were a way to tell a story through music.

I’ve tried burning mixes onto CD, but I make far fewer than I did in the days of cassettes. That intermission is a great loss, and I always get lost about halfway through with what song should come next. The fact that I can rearrange the song order ad infinitum is also a frustration. Once I recorded a song on tape I was pretty committed to keeping it there and it usually worked. Now I never know when to stop.

Playlists on iTunes and elsewhere are even less appealing to me. There’s no limit and so people cram dozens, even hundreds of songs together. A 90-minute cassette could hold about 15-20 tracks, and thus required some selection on the part of the creator. Some playlists I think don’t even have a human creator, they’re just pulled together by a computer.

So I sound like an old crank. I do like the shuffle on my iPod much more than I ever expected. Songs from my collection come up in unexpected and delightful song order (which I sometimes replicate in mixes I make). But I still mourn the loss of the mix tape. I still have mine, and perhaps I’ll get my tape player working and listen to them.

Here’s another guy who feels the same way about mix tapes (Joel Keller, Salon, January 22, 2004).Here are some more tributes to the lost art of the Mix Tape:

This song could be between any two others
you only hear it when you play it on your mix tape
made for you by your best friend before you left home
you played it all the way to a new town

Mix Tape…

This song could be between two of your favorites
in the middle of the b side of your mix tape
downloaded it from the web burned it onto a disc
bounced it on a cassette cause it’s an old car.

Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape
on your Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape

And you don’t know what band is playing
and you made up a name to name this song
’cause you lost that piece of paper
now it’s just a thing you’ve made to pass along

Mix Tape

Your cassette player’s gone the way of the Dodo
you only keep it now to listen to your mix tapes
’cause all of your cds sound to sterile and clean
all those squeaky little ones and zeros

Mix Tape…

This song could be between any two others
you only hear it when you listen to your mix tape
it does things to your brain takes you back to that day
like a time machine it’s future retro

Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape
on your Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape

And I don’t know what’s wrong with people
who think that music should be locked away
don’t they remember when they listened to their mix tapes
which got them into the business in the first place?

This song could be between any two others
you only hear it when you listen to your mix tape
or whatever new gizmos are coming our way
you mix it up for your friends and play

Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape
on your Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape
Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape
on your Mix Tape – on your Mix Tape.

(cc) some rights reserved – Jim Infantino 2003

  • Nick Hornby, 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 (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, 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

  • Josh Wink, Profound Sounds Vol. 1:

Mixed tapes have always been an important part of my life. When I was 7, I first encountered mixed tapes and the concept behind them: to reflect the taste, creativity and sensibility of an individual. The fun thing about a mixed tape was that you didn’t need to be a professional “DJ” to create one, yet you became a DJ when you made one. You didn’t need two turntables and a mixer. All you needed was a cassette deck, tapes, records, a sense of style, purpose, imagination, and whatever else you could get your hands on. The process of consciously compiling different songs, sounds and genres on tape evolved into an art form of its own. Time and energy was spent on how the tape should sound and flow. People made tapes to create specific aural atmospheres and moods. Whether to rock a house party or provide a bedroom soundtrack, tapes had many different purposes. In all cases, however, the tape’s main purpose was to be listened to… in various situations. Lots of people, including myself made tapes to educate others… or at least hoping to. I loved getting tapes from friends. The anticipation of putting the cassette into the player and being educated was a feeling I lived for.

9 thoughts on “Mix Tapes

  1. Indeed, the long lost art of a good mix tape! I cherish mine still, I haven’t been able to throw them out even though I never really listen to them anymore (with my cassette player being tucked away in a cupboard). Great post!

    By the way, I see your Enya followed by Sex Pistols and raise you Simon and Garfunkel followed by Aphex Twin (what was I thinking?).


  2. I have to agree – you did make a mean mix tape back in the day! I still have a few from you, and since my car has no CD player, they occasionally accompany me on my commute.

    P.S. I apologize if this blast from the past is unwelcome – someone pointed me in your blog’s direction, and I just wanted to say hi! I’m thrilled to see you doing so well! emily


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