We tend to think of it as a cultural anachronism. A short-lived oddity born out of that time between analog vinyl albums and digital files. But I would argue that the mixtape was the beginning of everything.
OK, that overstates it a bit. How about: in the ways we created and consumed mixtapes, we can find the earliest glimmers of the social media experiences of today. Looking back and thinking about why we loved them—considering what was beautiful about building them and receiving them—shows us what’s been lost as we’ve evolved and devolved into the feed-based formats of our current social world.
So, consider the mixtape; it has a lesson for the future.
I realize that most people on social media don’t even know what a cassette tape is—beyond the retro-graphic on a hipster iPhone case—and the benefits they brought to the world are features we now take comprehensively for granted.
But there was a time when songs were trapped in the amber vinyl of their albums and cassette tapes rescued them.
Tapes are inferior technology in every way. Terrible sound. Horror movie noises when you fast forward. A tendency—at crucial interpersonal moments of your adolescence—to spew out of the tape deck like so much tagliatelle. Vinyl is back but don’t hold your breath on the cassette.
Despite all this, cassette tapes did one magical and historically important thing: they liberated songs from their albums.
With a cassette tape, you could construct the perfect ninety minutes of music, song by carefully constructed song. It was an art. It was a craft. You chose a theme—borrowing a title from an obscure weather formation that fit your mood—and you mapped it out song by song, one after the other, each outro feeding deftly into each intro.
Most importantly, you recorded it in real time. No drag and drop. No progress bars. You sat there.
And what you did with that time was just as important as choosing the songs: you wrote about them. Short notes, free verse haikus on why you chose each track. Facts about the artist. Why this particular lyric was, well, perfect.
In this way, in making someone a mixtape, you didn’t just give someone the songs, you gave them the instructions for how to listen to them—printed in your super tiny font using a Uniball .55mm pen on the glossy Maxell insert, intricately origamied into the plastic case (which was definitely a reference for the iPhone form factor). You were curating.
And after all this work, late into the night, next morning as you sidled out of English, you handed it to her, super-casually setting it atop her Beowolf, as if an afterthought: “Oh hey, I made you this little mix.”
Now I’m sure you are wondering why I revere this antiquated pursuit. But don’t you see? Mixtapes changed everything. They were the fulcrums by which content was de-aggregated from its larger works. They let everyone, not just late night college DJs, choose their favorite stuff, organize it around a theme, add their own commentary and share it with their friends, delivering a seamlessly playable, thematically organized, on-demand experience. This moment was the beginning of a new form of self expression and cross pollination. Best of all, it enabled moments of contextual serendipity. When a This Mortal Coil song could come right after Here Comes the Flood.
No, this wasn’t the invention of the Internet.
But it was the invention of what we DO with the Internet.
If you think about it, creating a mixtape was social media in extremely slow motion. I “post” to you a bunch of content around a theme, along with my words about why I chose them and how they relate to the theme. In return, you send me a bunch of posts with your own words. I consume the content you’ve sent while reading what you told me about the content and why you chose it.
These behaviors have now taken over our lives. We share not just songs, but comedy clips, movies scenes, amazing sports plays, visual art, fashion, etc. We share the content we love and (sometimes) add our words around what we love about it. We’ve built an entire culture around sharing culture.
But we’ve lost something in the process — the crucial element that made consuming a mixtape a joy: an organizing principle, a theme.
Social media took the idea of pulling content out of its larger works and just ran with it, leaving the idea of organization behind. The dominant networks all have the same structure—people-based, feed-structured. I follow people and their posts wash over me in a newsfeed and disappear. There is no organizing principle tying posts together beyond the author that posted them and the ephemera of after-market hashtags.
The result is that the way people now share bits of culture into the Great Feed has the effect of atomizing it, leaving us with random particles, freed of their nuclei, bouncing in brownian motion. The experience of consuming the Feed, unlike the contextual serendipity of mixtapes, is just cacophonous noise and jarring juxtapositions. Not only is it noisy, it means genius posts by amazing curators disappear into the DisposAll of the feed along with mind-numbing portraits of latte foam and sweater-paw selfies.
I think we’ve played out the feed based networks to their extreme and the time has come to develop platforms that help us organize the world together —
not just pull it apart.
I believe that the answer lies in the metaphor of the mixtape.
I’ve been obsessed with mixtapes as a metaphor for sharing culture for my entire career. In high school and college, I started magazines that I thought of as mixed tapes for culture. My first company, Hear Music, created the first music stores with listening stations, each of which was thematically organized like a mixtape: “Radio Paris,” “Music for a Late Night Drive,” and “Hi-Fi Happy Hour At the Bachelor Pad with Joey is Like So.” After I sold Hear Music to Starbucks, we built an entire business by creating a series of mixed tapes to sit next to the register. We interviewed every iconic artist we could—from Tom Waits to Yo-Yo Ma to the Rolling Stones—working with them to create mixtapes of the music they loved for a series called Artist’s Choice. At Product (RED), I developed (RED)WIRE, a digital mixtape you received every week, that saved lives. Last year, I produced the Ken Burns iPad app, in which Ken Burns curated clips from his documentaries into mixtapes around the themes of Race, Innovation, Leadership and others.
My latest venture, Milq—undertaken with my genius partners Jordan and Tomi and our amazing team in Toronto and NYC—is about bringing back the power, the beauty and most importantly, the contextual serendipity of mixtapes as a way to structure a social experience. Our vision is to create a way for people to organize the entire world of culture together. And what’s so great about doing this now is that we can do it with video. On Milq, everyone creates mixtapes together, of video and audio, across every category of culture. I’ll write again soon about the power of collaboration specifically. But the reason we are able to make collaboration work so beautifully on Milq, yielding signal rather than noise, is that we’ve provided curators a structure to come together around specific passions, constructing mixtapes around specific themes. Whether they be Death Scenes in film (started by Paul Giamatti), Best NBA Crossovers of All Time (started by the NBA), How Designers Think (started by Tim Brown of IDEO) or Cool New Artists (where people all over the world you’ve never heard of help me find new stuff I love every day), we’ve made it possible for the most passionate and knowledgeable curators to share in a way that maps that area of culture for everyone else to explore.
So, for those of you ancient enough to remember, consider the mixtape. Hidden inside its plastic spooling awkwardness is the answer to the feed fatigue you feel every time you look at your phone.
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