April 24, 2012 Making music
I saw a woman on the train with an iPod cover imitating a cassette. This is, I think, poor form. Like the chief of some ancient tribe wearing the head of a defeated tribe’s chief as a hat, it seems unnecessarily boastful of one’s victory. The mp3 player is, of course, smaller, more convenient, with better sound quality than the traditional Walkman. The boxy, (literally) clunky beast was limited to one album at a time, too, and if you wanted variety you needed to carry round a small satchel full of tapes. Or listen to a mixtape.
Just as video killed the radio star, so Spotify killed the mixtape master. In the age of streaming music, with almost any song separated from the listener by the length of a search box, what value is there in an artfully-crafted mix of hidden gems, forgotten classics and straight-up crowd pleasers? Why bother with a mixtape? It doesn’t do anything Spotify or last.fm or just hitting shuffle on an iPod can’t do a million times better, right? Well, almost.
The thing is, there was an art to the mixtape, and I’m not really talking here about those tapes put together by DJs as something approaching a showreel. I’m talking about the home-made mixtape, made on a cheap tapedeck by (usually) lovestruck teenagers. As the form of the haiku limits, tests and ultimately improves the work of the poet, so the limitations of the medium coaxed something more from the home tape-alchemist. Not just a selection of tunes – if done right, the home-made mixtape was a love-letter, a showcase and a statement of intent.
There is little romance to the cassette tape. Only nostalgia can provide anything like a rosy glow of happiness at the sight of a BASF C90, and only partial brain damage can make a person say that music sounded better on tape. Vinyl, sure. Vinyl is different, its analogue warmth producing richer, deeper sounds than boring old digital, its clicks, pops and hisses reassuringly authentic. You can totally understand wanting to have a load of records about the place, a nice set of decks, some top-quality speakers… OK, you’ll look like a trance DJ or a jazz bore, but fuck it, you’re the one getting the best sound possible. Let the mp3 hordes have their shuffle buttons and portability. But tape? Nah. The crackles and hisses of tape aren’t sexy. They’re just annoying. They’re telling you the quality is dropping. They don’t scratch like vinyl but they do get eaten by the player, or stretched, producing garbled mockeries of their contents. There’s no joy in winding a loose bit of tape back onto its spool with a pencil (although there is satisfaction).
For those of you too young to remember, the mixtape was put together on a machine called, variously, a tape deck, a boom box or, slightly more racistly, a ghetto blaster. You might have seen one being toted by Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing, should you have an interest in classic Spike Lee. It needs two tape decks, neither of which should be prone to chewing tapes up and spitting them over the floor like an obnoxious diner objecting to squid ink pasta.
Then there are the hours and hours spent in construction. Putting together a coherent, coded playlist is one thing, but there are less obvious concerns. What about the inlay? Drawn front cover and hand written tracklist? Or, if you’re a bit flash, typed. Or put together on a computer!! How to perform each little segue? Inevitably, there is a clunk between each song as pause is hit on the recording deck, and it is a sub-skill of the mixtape master to eliminate such disunions. A small rewind and, the recording re-started at the right place, no-one will ever know. Or you could use these soft-hard moments of curtain-pulling as punctuation. This studied artlessness can point up a change.
But for shit’s sake people! iPods? mp3s? Spotify, last.fm, iTunes, Napster, WATCHING THE FUCKING ‘LYRICS’ VIDEO ON YOUTUBE? Appalling. Makes tape sound like you’re watching the band live. What are you all thinking? This is actually going BACKWARDS. Vinyl > Cassette > CD > mp3. Gah! ALSO, you’re fucking killing music, or something. This is a fairly famous infographic, but I’m going to assume you haven’t seen it because I’m cross with you.
There’s always a mood shift. Sometimes it’s abrupt, a short, angry song in the middle to jerk the listener out of a soulful patch and into a riot. But, more usually, it’s an incline. The songs become more and more focused on a mood – upbeat, downbeat, but, inevitably, usually, the mood shifts towards smooching. If you were on a dancefloor, the first part of a mixtape would be aimed at getting you on your feet. The second part would be keeping you there, arms wrapped, legs entwined.
I’ve made mixtapes, as you can probably tell. Several. I’ve only ever received one, but that’s another matter. I’ve made them to blow softly on the dying embers of a relationship, I’ve made them to kindle the fire of another. To show deep feeling, to expose a shallow longing. Each one personal to the recipient – I’ve never re-used a track listing. I’ve reused songs, though. Some are too good not to, and practical too. The piano reprise of White Love by One Dove is an absolute peach of a track for mixtapes. Just over a minute, intimate, romantic and it ends with an echoey sample (which I would love to have identified) of a man saying ‘She’s got a light around her. That’s love.’ If you find side B only fills 44 minutes, there’s your end song.
I got side-tracked there. What I was saying is that I’ve put many together. When it became apparent that cassettes were no longer viable I thought my mixing days were over. I ditched the tape deck, burned my cassettes*, set out in the final romantic relationship of my life without a perfectly-formed set of songs from the deeper recesses of my record collection. The weight was heavy, but I had argued long and hard against the idea of a mix-CD. It simply lacked romance. But…
… some things never die. A CD can take approximately 74 minutes of music (maybe to fit Beethoven’s 9th on, maybe not). A mixtape holds 60-90 minutes. It was tempting. Would the ease of the process reduce the blood, sweat and tears aspect of making a mixtape? Actually, it turned out that it’s quite a faff itself. Ripping tracks from dusty old CDs. Finding old cassingle B-sides on Napster. Fitting them in was a precise business, much less forgiving than the analogue tapes – sometimes one squeezed a cheeky extra minute from a C90. The end result was, listening back now, less than perfect. But it was a last hoorah for a dead artform.
So go, new generation. Make Spotify lists for the object of your desire. Pack as much music as the world gives you, which is all the music, down their ears. Give them infinite playlists. If you want. But from one who found beauty in restriction, the world in limits, I give just a small piece of advice: find ways to challenge yourself – just one genre. Only album tracks. Only songs less than three minutes in length. A playlist only 74 minutes long. Present them not with the world, but with your world. Condensed. Refined. Distilled.
*Metaphorically. The acrid smoke produced by such an act would be unforgiveable.