The art of the mixt@pe

“A good mixtape can put you in the right mood.” Mike D, Beastie Boys ‘Professor Booty’

I’ve recently been swapping playlists with my friend and her 15-year-old son (Hi Jen! Hi Alasdair!). The playlist is the new mixtape.

It definitely is much easier to put together a playlist – it only takes a few hours, compared to the full-on project that was a mixtape. And isn’t it so great to receive a personalised compilation of music? There are many things that remain the same when making a playlist: It’s not just a jumble of individual tracks, the order has to flow. I am a bedroom DJ conducting the mood of the listener. (I think I am unusual these days, still listening to albums rather than playlists. For the kind of music I listen to at least, the artist has made the album as a single piece, so the flow, the gaps, the beginning, the end, are very important.)

With your compilation, too, how’s it going to hang together? What do you leave out? Will this song work in a different context from how it was originally released? The listener will love this whole album, but I can’t put it all on, so which track to choose? This little track on the album will never get its own release, it’s not the big tune, but it’s great so I’m putting it on there anyway. These dilemmas remain with playlist curation.

But the actual art of making a mixtape has been lost. The timing was a big deal. On a C90, you had 45 minutes per side, so you had to be very aware of how long your collection of tracks was. Too short and there was a blank at the end of the tape. Too long and it was cut off mid-way.

And then of course, there was the sleeve and track listing. It could be functional and informative – just names of the tracks and artists – or a lovingly made little work of art, perhaps some collage. Ad Rock writes enthusiastically about mixtapes in the Beastie Boys Book, hence the image I’ve used here (© Adam Horovitz). He used to have pockets stuffed with them. One that I remember most was a Northern Soul compilation from my first boyfriend, complete with Sonic Youth Goo-style artwork.

So while the digitisation of music is a wonderful thing – you can access just about anything ever recorded and you don’t need to own it all – I think we’ve lost that manual touch. I seem to need it anyway, as I write letters, make zines or origami things instead. …Hmn, here’s an idea! Perhaps I’ll make some sleevenotes to go with my playlists…

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