Anatomy of a Mix Tape

Liner notes on a year of playlists

Mixtape #1, January 3, 2016

The first mix tapes I made were actual tapes, on cassette. Sometimes I made them for other people; crushes, girlfriends. Often I made them for myself. Songs to drive to. Songs to write to. When I got a car with a better stereo, I made mix CDs. I even made a few mix mini-discs, but those were impossible to share. Nobody had a mini-disc player. These days, like much of the world, I use Spotify. With access to some 30 million songs and without the space limitations of magnetic tape or shiny disc, Spotify mixes often swell to several hours long. If that’s your jam, then by all means have your cake. But I’m no DJ. I can’t spin a killer four hour set that will have the festival masses sweating in the slam tent. I’m a story teller. It’s how I make sense of the world. I need a narrative. To do that I need limits. A creative constraint.

“Art consists in limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”
— G. K. Chesterton

I limit my playlists to ten songs. You could fit many more than that on two sides of tape––depending on the tape — and almost double that on a CD. But ten songs is enough to tell story without losing the listener. On average I end up with around 40 minutes of music; a focused, cohesive collection spun around a single theme. The tracks aren’t always killer — that’s often not the point — but it means they aren’t filler either. It’s about finding the right ten songs. Putting them in the right order. That’s the joy, other than the listening. The challenge of it. Like putting the right words in a sentence. People have argued, of course: “Ten songs isn’t enough.” I disagree. For me, ten is the perfect number of songs in a playlist. There’s no time to dally. But then, I’m a minimalist. It’s the same reason I prefer short novels.

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”
– Rob Gordon, High Fidelity

Of course there are other rules. It’s common knowledge, for example, that you’re not supposed to have two tracks by the same artist in a single mix. I’m flexible on this. Sometimes there’s only one artist who truly captures the thing you need. Instead I try to use no more than two tracks by the same artist. And never put those songs fewer than five tracks apart. I try and open strong, and I often end thoughtful, but occasionally, when called for, I open soft and end on a banger. The only rule I don’t break? Ten songs, max.

Artwork for various mixtapes

At New Year, I started a TinyLetter and committed to sending out a new ten song playlist every week, along with a track listing, and liner notes that expand on the theme. Why? It’s about sharing, I suppose. About communicating. The same compulsion that drives me to write, to tell stories, to share something of myself with others — a thought, a feeling, an idea — is the same motivation at work here. As any of us who made mixes for our teenage crushes know, music is perhaps the best language we have to communicate how we feel. Words are limited, tone can get lost in translation, but end a mix tape with Purple Rain — as teenage me did more than once — and there won’t be any doubt what you’re trying to say. Only now it isn’t for a crush. It’s for friends. For strangers. It’s reaching out across the frosty climes of Twitter to say “hey, here are some songs you might like.”

The mix tape is a list a quotations, a poetic form in fact: the cento is a poem made up of lines pulled from other poems. The new poet collects and remixes.
– Matias Viegener, Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture

The themes I choose come from different places. Sometimes they are sparked by a single song, or a particular mood. Sometimes by an instrument; a piano or an acoustic guitar. Sometimes it starts with a story, like my soundtrack for an indie film that doesn’t exist, or an imagined road trip from Austin, Texas, to New York, culled from a much longer playlist my friend Summer Anne Burton made when she took that same trip. And sometimes I get experimental: a playlist made of ten versions of the same Bruce Springsteen song, by ten different artists, or one comprised entirely of the intro and outro tracks of albums. Every now and then I serve up ten stone cold bangers. Because, shit, sometimes I just wanna dance. You know?

“I made you a cassette recording. It’s a compilation of songs I used to listen to during some of my early formative relationships. And plus, there’s a couple of things I thought you might dig. I think music can make things seem a bit more real, sometimes, if you know what I mean.”
– Lloyd Tate, Submarine

Inspiration comes from all over. Ideas don’t always work. But, when you find the right songs, in the right running order, they often do. It pays to be obsessive about how songs segue into each other. To think about the story you’re telling. This is why making playlists by hand will always beat out an algorithm. As good as they are, algorithms lack nuance, they can find similar songs, match tempo, but they have limits. They suck at making left field choices. Hitting the radio button on Spotify demonstrates that. Not that I’m against algorithms. Spotify’s Discover Weekly has been an invaluable resource, finding songs I’ve never heard and songs I’d long forgotten. I add them to my ever-expanding song folder, ready to drop into the right mix.

“The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.”
– Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mix Tape

I’ve sent out 17 Mixtape newsletters so far this year. I’m going to send out 52 in total. Not that I’ll stop after that, but perhaps I’ll slow down. Part of the reason I committed to the newsletter was to expand my listening from the same three Pearl Jam albums, and I’ve certainly done that. I don’t know if the resulting mix tapes are any good. I hope so. I enjoy making them. My modest subscriber base seem to enjoy listening to them. That’s good enough for me. If you have Spotify, listen to some of the mixes I’ve linked to above, or read through the archive. If you like what you hear, subscribe. It‘s free.

If not, that’s cool too. I’ll keep making them anyway. I can’t seem to help it. And besides, it’s entirely too much fun.

The Mixtape TinyLetter goes out every Sunday. You can subscribe here.

When I’m not making playlists I’m usually on Twitter.

A little recommend goes a long way, thank you.