The Emotional Design of the Mixtape

Why custom cassettes still appeal in the age of unlimited music

In Marvel’s upcoming space odyssey of a movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, has a mixtape his mother made him before she died. It’s filled with songs she loved from the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s one of his most prized possessions because it reminds him of his connection to her and to his time on earth.

For many of us who grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s, the mixtape was the ultimate gift of self-expression to a loved one. It took thought, time and an intimate knowledge of the recipient. Within the confines of two short sides of a cassette, and from our own assemblage of albums and the frequencies on our FM dial, we distilled a one-of-a-kind soundtrack. It was both an art form and a means of communication, a bespoke object and a musical zine made just for one.

As a 10-year-old kid in 1985, I would wait for my favorite songs to come on the local radio station or on MTV, impatiently at the ready with my forefinger resting on the record button of my portable tape player. The sound quality was always terrible and I felt immense pressure to avoid the audible click of the record button, so I’d keep my middle finger on the pause button to ease the transition. Of course, there was always the problem of the DJ or veejay, in the case of MTV, making some announcement, overlapping the beginning or the end of each precious song. Sometimes I would record myself talking, commenting on each song or doing a brief comedy bit, just to break up the monotony of the music. Huey Lewis and the News, Duran Duran, Billy Joel, Prince and the theme song from St. Elmo’s Fire all made it on the first mixtape I ever made. It was far from my last.

Kids don’t do that kind of thing anymore. Gone are the hours of work, the slow, steady, thought-provoking task of making a tangible mixtape.

It wasn’t just about the song selection process, it was about the whole choreography of timed interaction with radio shows and TV schedules. There was only one way to get the songs you wanted onto the tape in your hand, and that was through patience. Now, iTunes and Spotify make designing playlists as easy as drag and drop.

With immediate, round-the-clock access to practically every musical track ever laid down, the necessity of mixtape craft has faded, but the love for it remains. In fact, like so much folk design of eras past, the aspects of the practice that were tedious can now be seen as the limitations that inspire creative thinking. In an inexhaustible and often intangible world, we have to fabricate our own constraints.

Last year, the compact cassette tape turned fifty years old. Phillips Electronics officially introduced the product in 1963. But it took a few years to really catch on. In the 1960s and 1970s, the format of choice on which to record mixtapes was the 8-track, which was cumbersome, immensely time-consuming to work with, and required special recording equipment not readily available to the casual music fan.

With improvements to fidelity, the cassette tape — which was originally only available in mono and used in offices to record dictation — became the go-to format for music listening and recording, thanks in part to the popularity of Sony’s Walkman in 1979 and the diffusion of car cassette decks. Because recording became easier, and the equipment smaller, cheaper and more widely available, mixtape culture soared.

In his 2002 essay collection Songbook, British author Nick Hornby writes about the emotional resonance certain songs have for him. The cover of the original edition was intended to mimic the packaging of a homemade mix CD. The book also included a CD of 11 of the 31 songs mentioned in the book.

Hornby is best known for his 1995 novel High Fidelity, about a record store owner named Rob who spends most of his time making top-five music lists and mourning a breakup with his girlfriend. Through his character, Hornby describes the aesthetic process of properly making a mixtape:
To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.

Let’s not forget the packaging of the mixtape, which carried the message of the mix as much as the music. A true devotee would hand-write liner notes and draw or collage a cover image that conveyed the tape’s theme. The visual artistry of the mixtape is often mimicked in today’s corporate design language. In fact, my credit card is designed to look like a mixtape. And I’ve gotten many compliments on it, thank you.

By the early 2000s, CDs largely replaced the cassette tape, and mixes made the leap. With the CD burner and the invention of software that could rip and store your CD music collection on your computer, the mix-making process became easier and more efficient. A mix CD, compared to its predecessor, took just a fraction of the time to compile and CD packaging offered even more real estate for custom cover art.

When I was dating my wife in the early 2000s, I made two mix CDs for her. The first, created during a brief breakup, was full of songs about being lonely, angry and sad. Jeff Buckley and Ryan Adams featured prominently. After we got back together a week later, I made another one. This time, it featured a theme and a title: You Came Back. The songs were happy, sappy, funny and beautiful. I wrote liner notes describing why I included each song and how they reminded me of her. I even painted the cover. It was a masterpiece.

Now CDs have mostly become dust-gathering clutter and music has been dematerialized, traveling from the internet to our devices unseen. In many ways, it’s great. But with it comes the loss of cover art and liner notes, the careful arranging of songs, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to hold the thing in our hands. Now, the closest you can get is with the MakerBot Mixtape, which allows you to create a mix online, then print it to a tape (it’s actually a small drive containing songs in MP3 format) using a 3D printer.

In the past few years, sort of like vinyl, the cassette mixtape has made a comeback among bands looking for a different way of releasing albums, and 20-something audiophiles trading mixtapes online and through the mail. No one mistakes this revival for a resurrection. Making mixtapes, once a mass phenomenon, is now a twee exercise.

That the practice endures at all tells us something important about art and self-expression. The constraints that once bound the maker to the mixtape have been stripped away from the outside by technology, but they persist on the inside as a kind of epiphenomenal desire.

We want them, and we need them; we seek them out and continue to celebrate their artifacts, all the more as they fade further into the realms of nostalgia. We even project them into the future—Star-Lord’s talisman of meaning in a world without limits.

Thurston Moore of the band Sonic Youth is perhaps one of the biggest champions of the mixtape. As editor of the 2005 book Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, he collected stories, essays and art by numerous writers, artists and musicians about the mixtape. The book stands as a testament to the importance of the medium, not only in the personal lives of the contributors but also in pop culture. In it, artist and writer Matias Viegener describes it lovingly:

The mix tape is a form of American folk art: predigested cultural artifacts combined with homespun technology and magic markers turns the mix tape into a message in a bottle. I am no mere consumer of pop culture, it says, but also a producer of it. Mix tapes mark the moment of consumer culture in which listeners attained control over what they hear, in what order and at what cost.

The problem, now, however, is that listeners have too much control over what they hear and in what order. The assumption of mixtape design was a cultural landscape controlled by mass broadcasters, so that the availability of music was scarce. Communicating by media-making was more costly, too.

Now, free music is everywhere and anyone can make a Tumblr designed to woo. But it’s still a lovable feat to craft a personal message out of songs — maybe even greater in the absence of technological limitations. And regardless of how the music is played, it’s always a time capsule for the moment when it was made.

How to make your own mixtape
the old school way

Here are a few technical details to keep in mind

  1. Timing
    Cassette tapes usually have two or three seconds of non-recordable tape at the beginning and end of each side.
  2. Brand
    Use BASF, TDK, Phillips, Magnavox or Maxell tapes, if those brands are still produced. I have found them to be among the best.
  3. The cut-off
    Make sure to properly time out all of the songs you want to include on your mix before you start recording. If you miscalculate, you could risk running out of tape and cutting off a song midway through.
  4. The Art of the start/stop
    When recording a song, rest one finger on the record button and another finger on the pause button to avoid recording the click sound of the recorder button
  5. Cover art
    To really make your mixtape stand out, create eye-catching cover art, including liner notes. For inspiration, refer at old record albums.
  6. Song selection
    For tips on song selection, I highly recommend this Esquire article.

You can follow Charles Moss on Twitter at @chachimoss. Subscribe to re:form’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.

Cover photograph by Hanul Sieger