Ah, the mix tape. Through it’s many forms: tape, CD, thumb-drive, hand scribbled note, .m3u file; it remains, to me, one of the most personal ways of audible expression short of actually composing a song or poem. A mix tape is the original “social media.” The mix (as it will herein be referred to) is a once often practiced, now sadly neglected, art and ritual amongst friends, crushes, significant others, new acquaintances, pen pals and strangers. Even I’m guilty of it’s downfall. It is a unique and engaging way for not only the mix(ee) to get to know the mix(er) through the mixer’s selection and arrangement of musical tracks. It is also, in it’s best state, a gorgeous outlet for the mixer to weave a story and craft a message to the listener(s) (mixee) with a sonic thread. However, with the increase in music’s accessibility and rise of the iPod, mp3 players, portable drives and digital downloads, these carefully pieced, 80 minute* pastiches of hand-crafted refrain, have fallen by the wayside in favor of large “music dumps.” Where users will shove bulk amounts of music across to each other. Which, although beneficial to the overall proliferation of music and one’s exposure to new artists, work, etc, it lacks the personality, character and message, defining of a classic mix.
The true nature of a mix, is not unlike that of a composed album. It’s goal is to build a connection between compiler (mixer) and listener. Whether it’s a random jumbling of favorite tracks, a themed snapshot or a beautifully orchestrated arrangement of tracks with complementary, distinct flow and style, the mix serves as a vessel for the mixer to express themselves.
A few things I think a “classic mix” must have:
1) A finite duration – although new digital formats such as iPods and flash drives have allowed this duration to approach infinity. A true mix should show scrutiny and deliberateness in the selection. This means, that a mixes format must be a specific and reasonable amount of time. I think an 80 minute CD or 60-90 minute tape is perfect.
2) Message – a mix must tell a story. Whether that’s in the method (or lack there of) in track selection, theme, lyrical nature, personal significance. The message doesn’t have to be explicit to the listener at first glance (or ever) but a real mix must have meaning.
Additionally, a real mix is something physical. It’s something you can hold. It further embodies the mixer’s purpose down to the very packaging and delivery. The handwritten playlist, the folded printer paper or colored jewel case, the Sharpie marked, doddled and decorated CD itself. They all drip with personality and purpose. Each aspect, another opportunity for the mixer to evoke and fine tune his/her statement.
As far as specific “rules” that’s really all I can think of. There are plenty of “suggested guidelines” I can think of, like not using the same artist more than twice (unless composing a “best of” mix), or attempting some type of flow and rhythm to the arrangement. But those are more pet peeves than anything else. The above 2 items (and loosely the physical aspect) are really all I can lay down for a definition.
Now, I don’t take myself as a “mix maestro” or anything along those lines by far. A mix can be likened to piece of art, it can’t really be wrong, but it can certainly fail to correctly communicate, or fall short of the original creative and artist endeavor. I have certainly had mixes fail. I have failed at mixing. I have made terrible mixes. I have made great mixes. But the experience and reward of composing a mix and it’s ideal reception is what drives me. The progression and transition of tracks. The research and discovery of the perfect music to go together. The arrangement of style and tempo. The attempt to craft the perfect mix for the intended mixee (or event) that also accurately reflects my personality and intent. It’s challenging and it’s fun. I also get to listen to a lot of really great music in the process :)
This comes to me now, at a time, where I have been developing several ideas based around the mystique of the mix tape. They are not quite finished, but I think a return to both the art and physical nature of the mix is long overdue. I imagine a place in where people are introduced, acquainted, and enchanted, not just by a static listing of tracks, but in the actual real life process of creating and exchanging mixes. More to come.
*For me, the mix tape mostly lived on CDs, with an 80 minute limit. Although you might be familiar with 46 or 60 minute interludes.