To reduce it to merely longing for an antiquated past doesn’t hold up, though. We get it, there’s a reason we aren’t hurling smoke signals across the sky at each other. But it seems prudent to be aware of the effects and absentminded convenience of immediacy. Interactions used to require far more active participation, at the least, the effort of changing out of your pyjamas. It’s the will to put in that effort that is waning. So what’s the remedy? Handwritten letters come to mind, but few people are rushing to break out their inkwells; that’s if your handwriting hasn’t by now regressed into something even doctors squint at. There is a time-honoured artifact which offers all the personalised intimacy of a letter while still managing to keep pace alongside our hurried lives: the mixtape.
Though it retains its name from the days of cassette tapes, a mixtape isn’t restricted to any one format. They can come in the form of cassettes, repurposed USB sticks, digital downloads, online playlists, and of course the current preference, compact discs. Veterans will fondly remember fiddling with tape recorders, cursing the names of radio jockeys that chimed in before the song was over. They may have been tedious at times, but using cassettes honed the art of crafting a well-balanced mixtape. Careful consideration had to be given to getting the timing right between the two sides, and not just to avoid too much dead space. It mirrored the way LPs are intentionally sequenced to utilise the act of turning the record over as part of the experience, an intermission of sorts. So it’s very much a case of weighting things right.
It’s one thing dumping a bunch of songs onto a drive or data disc and trusting the shuffle function on your player to somehow conjure something coherent out of all of it, but making a mixtape is a process that unravels without some direction. Quality trumps quantity, and when woven together meticulously, a mixtape can have the same transportive flow of a good album. Curate the thing with care, and you’re on the way to sending someone something to be cherished.
Enquire about the music your recipient likes, or stalk whatever myface account they’re on for clues. If you’re introducing someone to new music, think of it as offering them musical stepping stones, so don’t throw down an impossible divide. You’ll develop a knack for figuring out peoples’ sounds, and it’s thrilling knowing you might be a footnote to the feeling or memory when someone hears something great for the first time.
Decide if you’re aiming for a themed mixtape, one that covers a certain era or movement, or better yet, captures a unified feeling. Otherwise rope in a range of artists from a blend of genres, trying to avoid repetition where possible, and then try connect the dots. Structuring it is challenging, relying a lot on personal preference, genres present, and aesthetic intent. The focus should be on finding segues, the harmonies that create plausible transitions between songs. Whether you like stacking the party up front or sporadically, remember, there’s a reason the slow dances cap off prom night.
Setting the tone with your opener is a crucial play; one of the only times it’s advisable to be jarring is on the opening track, so select something that takes hold of the listener’s attention. Alternatively, an instrumental or slow burning intro is good for building anticipation. Pick your closing track like a writer would the last line of a book, a parting thought to satisfy or stagger the listener; something powerful or personal. Once arranged, write or record that sucker. If you’re doing it digitally, create a playlist or rename the files for consistency and numerical flow. Do your best, but you can wager iTunes will still somehow fuck up the file naming.
Presentation is the final task. You have to call it something, and it’s worth stretching for more than to: girl, from: boy. You could select a standout track and incorporate that into the title, but be creative. Bonus points for calligraphy or cool doodles if you’re making a physical mixtape, and adding some album artwork and a tracklist will help it stand out from the pile of CDs under the car seat. Look you don’t have to take up scrapbooking, but giving your listener something to hold while taking in the music only serves to make it more memorable.
Voilà, consider yourself a mixtape curator. By all means, imagine yourself as John Cusack holding the boom box above his head outside of his dame’s window while you’re at it. Mixtapes needn’t be restricted to romance though. Finding yourself a musical pen pal is a very rewarding thing. No matter the recipient, and whatever the intent, a mixtape is a notable way to communicate. It can convey the unsaid, inspire, and mark recollection. It’s a warm gesture, an invitation, like sharing an equation with someone dear, hoping they arrive at the same answer you did: indescribable feeling.