Resurrecting the Lost Art of the Mixtape — And How to Make Playlists Better

(Originally written January 2009. Updated October 2016)

Somewhere in a drawer, I still have my tapes. Little 90-minute nuggets of emotions with “Maxell” stickers slapped on top. Happy-Fun-Time mixes, Breakup mixes, Road Trip mixes, Alt/Grunge mixes, Classic Rock mixes (esoterically named The Gen 13 Series), Girlfriend mixes (both from and for), 80’s and Oldies mixes… They are all there. Some made by me, dozens made by others. Each one has a story and a personality of its own. More importantly, it has the personality of its creator.

Tapes had 90-minutes to tell a story. Not even 90. Two 45-minute, strictly-regimented interludes. And there was a lot to fit in. It took planning—and as Nick Hornby wrote, there were rules.

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 it off with a corker, to hold the attention […], and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, […] and . . . oh, there are loads of rules.

— Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (1995), pp. 88-89

Some may argue that MP3 playlists are the same thing. But it’s just not true.

ITunes changed the game. Now it’s all drag & drop. Sure it’s faster. Sure you can crank out one right after the other — and you can find any song ever recorded ever. But there isn’t any romance. You don’t listen to each song as it is being placed, giving you that one last chance to make sure that this is the perfect song to tell your story. You don’t get to think about the memory it invokes or the specific reason the listener will love that song. Gone is the emotional investment. Songs have been replaced with files.

It’s all so very mechanical.

When was the last time you listened to a tape? Don’t worry; I had to think about this one, too. The answer is probably sometime just before you traded in your last car with a tape deck.

With the advent of MP3’s, your playlist can be infinite. It’s literally a never ending story. This has cheapened the craft. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Who wants to listen to something forever? No—two 45-minute sides were perfect. It may seem like a good thing, but infinity is overrated.

Just ask Nick and Norah.

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I remember hunting for songs. Calling friends and digging through my sister’s music collection. Or waiting by the radio with my hand on the Record button, hoping the DJ would read my mind and give me just enough break between songs to not get any banter at the end. It was awful and so very wonderful at the exact same time.

And playlists make it too easy to skip. How many times did someone make you a tape with a song you didn’t really like? Or with a band you didn’t know? And how many times did you grow to love that song? That’s the point! You learned new music. You created an emotional attachment with the lyrics, with the singer and with the person that gave you the tape. Because if you wanted to skip, you had to hit Fast Forward. Then you’d go too far. Then you’d hit Rewind. Then you’d Fast Forward again until you found the next song. It was a process. No, it was just easier to listen to it. Later you’d find that you didn’t even want to pass that song anymore. In fact, maybe you’d want to Fast Forward to that song.

Now you just skip.

My friends made great tapes. All for different reasons. Some came up with fantastic names for their mixes. The Mourning of The Death of Chivalry, The Great Philosophes and Ed McMahon comes to mind. Another friend never made labels or covers for his tapes—he could just tell which it was by holding it up to the sky. He had a connection to them. They spoke to him. They spoke to him because he spent 90 minutes creating each and every one.

You just can’t do that with a playlist.

I’m not saying we go back. I’m not telling you to step away from your computer and dig out your old boombox. The Mix-Tape is dead—and it has been for a while. It’s a thing of the past. But I still miss it.

So maybe I start editing more. Maybe I give myself a limit. And maybe, moving forward, I cut my lists to 90 minutes. I bet they’ll be stronger. Because with limits, you have to think–and you have to craft. You have to pay attention and you have to make choices. And ultimately, isn’t that better?

Got any perfect playlists? I’d love to hear ‘em. You tell me your favorite mixtape memory below and I’ll tell you mine.

*play*

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