Mixtapes are like sex. You always remember your first, but the quality tends to improve (if there is any justice in the world) with experience. Both require patience, intuition and creative flair; you can’t just stick things anywhere and expect good results.
I made my first for somebody who played a really important role in shaping who I am now. It was the year 2000 and I knew for a fact that the best mix they owned at that point was a Ministry of Sound compilation that peaked with ‘Forgot About Dre’. They needed something to jam on family holidays that spanned their already sprawling myriad of musical interests thanks to a mother who poured Stevie Nicks in one ear and a father who stuffed Tom Waits in the other.
Ok, so I’m talking about me. At least the first ten mixtapes I ever made were for me. Whatever. Saying true to the sex simile, how are you supposed to know what works unless you practice on yourself first?
I’m not sure whether it was because my family was skint or because I have an innate aversion to change or both, but long after CDs became the primary format, I could be found sat in my grandparent’s living room every Sunday afternoon washed up against their sound system on a wave of open jewel cases, meticulously tracking selected songs from each album to cassette. Why? Well, why does anybody do anything? For fun, duh. Remember FUN? Also this was shortly before the widespread availability of MP3 players so unless you ruthlessly stuffed 10 CDs into a single jewel case or were content to rely on the Now That’s What I Call Music franchise for all your compilation needs, the only way you could get twenty different songs in one place was to sit down and bloody well put them there yourself. In perfect running order. Carefully arranging songs so that the endings flow nicely into the beginnings. Taking into account vibe and context. And it’s usually good to have a theme… Jeez, am I the Monica Geller of mixtape making? I think I might be. Rules help control the fun though, right guys?!
Anyway once I started to go outside more, mixtapes became a major tool in forming relationships with people other than myself. I made mixes for my parents, current friends, future friends, secret crushes, would-be boyfriends, would-be girlfriends, would-be forgottens… basically anyone with a pulse that I found interesting. And, though the people inevitably came and went, the mixes stayed, providing subtle soundtracks to learning curves I didn’t recognize as such until much later.
They were there in the backseat on family holidays embedding the details to all my favourite songs by bands that had appeared on The Simpsons. They were there when I sat next to my first high school crush on the school bus, trying not to giggle because we were listening to a mix I made and SHARING A PAIR OF HEADPHONES AGH. They were there in the first year of University during the most uncertain window of time – you know, the one that comes before you’ve made any real friends but after freshers week has appropriately segregated the class in order of those who strawpedo VKs at traffic light parties to those who organise their gin bottles by height. It’s in that window where all the cute stuff is allowed to happen without making you want to puke.
You sit on curbs and doorsteps together, sharing a cigarette even though neither of you smokes. You put out feelers using the easy stuff: books, films and music. Questions like “Do you like Sonic Youth?” are perfectly acceptable. Statements like “Bukowski is great” land like mini-earthquakes in your pants. You do a rubbish impression of Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona. They reveal a Nicholas Cage tattoo on their ankle. You exchange mixtapes. Then, if they’ve done good, in-jokes for the rest of your lives or body fluids.
You don’t know this person yet, so everything is new and exciting. Something as quaint as a collection of songs can become a major foundation for things to come. They’re a way of introducing yourself. There’s a reason mixtapes are exchanged frequently between crushes and rarely between people in relationships.
Of course, the nature of the mixtape is a little different now. Once upon a time, if you made a mix for somebody they couldn’t easily skip through the tracks they recognized or didn’t like immediately, because fast- forwarding tapes is horrible business and you never land at the beginning of anything and nobody can be arsed. Tapes force a person to sit there and listen to what the other has to say in full and in the intended order. Now, not so much. Mostly because, despite the recent resurgence the tape format, the majority of people won’t have a tape deck unless their parents didn’t throw theirs out of the window along with the turntable in celebration of the digital revolution screaming “CDs forever!”
Now, mixes primarily exist on Soundcloud, Spotify, 8-track, Tape.ly and other streaming services, which serve their purpose but aren’t quite the same. Having said that, if you’re a real square (hi) you can still make your own artwork and scan it in and if you’re making it for someone who’s worth it they’ll listen to it properly anyway. So I guess you can either look at digital as lacking the aesthetic value of the physical format or as a way of saving you from pouring your time and creativity into a gift for someone who will donate it to their local coffee shop (or bin) without so much as a cursory listen.
Yes, mixtapes might be the flowers and chocolate for the musically obsessed, overly sentimental and socially inept. Yes, they might be the material manifestation of John Cusack standing in a driveway hoisting a boombox above his head blasting a Peter Gabriel song about some chick’s dope eyes. But the fact remains that mixtapes are incredibly revealing. They are self-portraits, in a sense. Even the ones that are made up of relentless Italo Disco spliced with Sandra Bullock monologues.
To summarise, here are three golden rules I’ve learned during my career as an amateur mixer:
1. For the love of god think long and hard about the track order. Arrange them in the same way you would like to hear a full-length album. By which I mean keep it diverse but don’t put Cannibal Corpse next to Teenage Fanclub. That’s like shoving it in without so much as a kiss on the neck.
2. If you’re making a mix for your crush, go for a vibe that says “if you also like this Elvis Depressedly cover of Alice Deejay I might be the person of your dreams but nbd” not writing I LOVE YOU in petrol on their front lawn and setting it on fire. Oh, and under no circumstance are you to include anything from your sex mix.
3. Avoid Death Cab For Cutie like the plague. You’re not Seth Cohen.
Originally published on The 405 here.