Sometimes I go to yard sales to buy cassettes compiled by people who are complete strangers to me. You see something that has 'Marty's Mix' scrawled on it in ballpoint pen. You take it home and you don't know if it's going to be US post-punk hardcore or Kenny Rogers. Whatever it is, though, I know I'm getting a slice of someone's life. Cassettes are the only format that can give you that.
- Thurston Moore of band Sonic Youth (Quoted by Pete Paphides)
A Mix Tape is an amateur-created audio cassette music compilation, compiled of different songs from different albums (usually taken from other tapes, from LPs or the radio). While sometimes mix tapes contained songs from various albums by the same artist, mix tapes were primarily made up of songs by different artists. Most mix tapes were inherently personal, either kept for oneself, or given to a friend or lover. The term "mixtape", however, also had special meaning in hip hop culture, in which they were inherently public media forms.
Beginning in the 1960s, with the emergence of the Philips compact cassette and the development of Japanese-made cassette players and recorders, mix tapers began to challenge the notion of the single-artist album by taking on the role of the creator (Millard 315-6). As scholar Rob Drew notes, “Rather than conforming to artistic intention and industry practice, mixers treated the album as an open work and took the selection and ordering of songs into their own hands” (Drew 535). The mix tape thereby enabled people “to make their own personal soundtracks and compilations"(535).
As we shall see, the mix tape as it is defined here would disappear in the mid to late 1990s with the emergence of the compact disk, and later the digital playlist. While these musical forms have inherited tropes of the original mix tape form, there are fundamental differences between the experience of creating, listening to, and receiving an original cassette mix tape versus these new "versions".
- 1 Technological History
- 2 Types
- 3 Mix Tape Theory
- 4 Death of the Mix tape
- 5 Contemporary Incarnations
- 6 References
The Compact Cassette
Following in the tradition of its predecessor, the reel-to-reel, the compact cassette was a device introduced primarily for the purpose of personal and workplace related recording (316). As is indicated by its name, the compact cassette was revolutionary due to its transportable size: small enough to fit into a pocket, and yet able to hold up to 45 minutes of content on each side (316).
Introduced by Philips in 1963, the compact cassette sold poorly in it's first year, selling only about 9,000 units. As a result, Philips did not declare the cassette as proprietary technology, and instead, encouraged other companies to license the use of the technology. All that Philips required was that all other manufacturers adhere to the Philips standard, so that all manufactured cassettes were equally compatible (317).
As a result of this opening up, by the mid 1960s, a variety of cassette playing devices were being manufactured by various Japanese corporations, notably Panasonic and Norelco. Norelco introduced the first cassette player/recorder, "The Norelco Carry-Corder", powered by flashlight batteries and weighing approximately three pounds. By 1968, approximately eighty five different manufacturers had sold over 2.4 million cassette players and recording devices across the globe. Moving in the 1970s, Millard notes, "The Philips compact cassette became the standard format for tape recording by the end of the decade" (317).
The only thing holding the compact cassette back, however, was its sound quality. Unlike the LP record, it was a low fidelity medium with poor sound quality, disturbed by loud tape hissing. Over the years, various companies developed different methods of improving the sound quality. Ray Dolby, an employee of the Ampex Corporation managed to devise improved methods for reducing the noise of magnetic tape. The Dolby A system worked by emphasizing certain high frequencies during the recording process, and then de-emphasizing these frequencies during playback, resulting in less tape "hiss" (318). Manufacturers of magnetic tape, particularly Japanese companies like Sony, Denon and TDK, developed new magnetic materials to coat the plastic tape, thereby accommodating more magnetic information (318). Consequently, the reduction of tape hiss as a result of Dolby's system, combined with "the higher-frequency response of chrome and metal particle tapes" brought the tape into the high fidelity realm, and gained it the respect of audiophiles (319).
As a result of these improved technologies, record companies began releasing albums on compact cassette. Cassettes could be easily and attractively packaged, they were small and durable, while exceeding the playing time of a long playing record. By the late 1970s, the cassette tape had begun to challenge the disc in total sales, and by the early 1980s, the ratio of vinyl to cassette was around 6:4 (320).
Mix Tape Recording Technology
Following the emergence of the cassette tape and early cassette recorders and players, Japanese manufacturers introduced more sophisticated home cassette recording technologies, specifically those that allowed cross media recording.
In the 1970s, the affordable combination record player/radio systems came with a built in cassette player, which could record any output out of the unit, either off the radio, or off a record (319). Simultaneously, the cassette was becoming a more and more popular way to purchase commercial music. Music listeners wanted a way to record music not just from vinyl to cassette, but from audio cassette to audio cassette. This was altered with the emergence of the double or dual cassette deck (see Patent) allowing the user to record from one pre-recorded tape to a blank one in the same unit. This technology would later be developed into the popular, portable "boom box" form, which allowed your tape-to-tape reproduction studio to be taken with you at all times (Millard 322).
By 1982, more than twenty million audio recording devices were believed to be imported into the United States, and it was estimated that approximately sixty percent of American households had at least one tape recorder (Jeffords 8). Almost everyone had become a home tapper, and the listener's relationship with music was experiencing fundamental changes.
"Home Taping is Killing Music"
Before there was music downloading and Napster, there were cassette mix tapes. While tape was certainly not the first home recording technology (Edison's wax cylinder phonograph was recordable), it was certainly the first reliable and mainstream one, making it a favorite medium to record off the radio, vinyl records or commercial tapes (Walker)
In the eighties cassette ripping had become increasingly popular, record labels fought back, accusing home tapers of destroying the music industry (rhetoric which sounds familiar in the post-digitization era). Beginning in 1982, the recording industry began to lobby for surcharges on blank tapes, and even experimented with anticopying technology which would be encoded on vinyl LPs (Walker). "Home Taping is Killing Music" became the well known, and extensively mocked motto of the record label lobbying movement.
The cassette and cassette equipment manufacturers retaliated, however, with a strong counter lobbying movement, and with Sony at the lead (who was simultaneously fighting the Hollywood studios over it's Betamax player), the counter lobbyists won, upholding "a consumer's right to copy for personal use" (Walker).
In reality, home taping was never "killing music", as the record companies claimed it was. People continued to purchase music despite the new cassette recorders, in fact, prerecorded cassettes and discs sold in increasing quantities (Millard 327) It was the way they interacted with that music, as we shall see, that threatened the structure of consumer and producer structure, that seemed to create this unfounded fear.
DJ and Hip Hop Mix Tape
For my purposes, I will be largely focusing on the personal mix tape form, as the mix tape has gone on to carry significantly different meanings in the contemporary hip hop community. Nonetheless, it is important to understand how the roots of the term mix tape in hip hop and DJ culture, were not so far off from our understanding of personal mix tapes.
Mixtapes (the two words are frequently joined together in the hip hop context) were utilized in the 1970s, 80s and 90s by DJs as promotional materials to book DJ gigs, and to gain a reputation for themselves and their crews in their respective communities (Dinero). These mixtapes, which many in hip hop consider to be "true mix tapes" featured the latest music, ranging from hip hop, to R & B and reggae artfully blended together (Dinero). While DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, Brucie B, and Starchild would record their their live shows and trade them around New York City, it was perfected by Kid Capri and Funkmaster Flex, who would put effort into crafting exceptional tapes purely for their own sake (Oseguada and Hall). In many cases, these mixtapes worked as promotional tools, and Kid Capri, Funkmaster Flex, and DJ Clue all went on to sign to major labels. Later on other mixtape DJs would also sign to major labels, including Kay Slay, Green Lantern, and DJ Envy (Hall).
It is clear, therefore, that while they were a essentially public medium, the original DJ and hip hop mixtape was not so different from a personal mix tape, in that both were compilations of different songs by different artists, artfully organized on compact cassette.
In the 21st century century, however, the term "mixtape" has been completely redefined, bearing little resemblance to its original roots. Rather than a collection of different songs by other artists, mixtapes are now understood merely as a collection of original songs by one artist put out for free, either on CD or digitally, for minimal cost in order to build hype for that artist (Concepcion). "I want to give people a little taste of what a Hayes album would be like," Detroit rapper Hayes says. He describes the contemporary mixtape as a kind of 'sample. "It's like getting a trial subscription to your favorite magazine- you get my music for free, you get to know me, and then hopefully you'll appreciate me enough to come back and support me" (Concepcion).
Unlike its original incarnation, therefore, this new form of mix tape should not be grouped in with the mix tape discussed here, recorded on compact cassette, and defined as a user and not a producer artform.
Most of this discussion of the audio cassette mix tape focuses around the personal mix tape. I use the term "personal mix tape" not to refer to mix tapes solely made for ones self (although those are common), but rather, to refer to mix tapes that are not intended for widespread public listening and consumption (ie in a club, in the street etc). Personal mix tapes are usually bound up in ideas of personal expression: of one's ideas, thoughts or feelings for another. The new cassette technology empowered individuals to reject the one way producer-consumer relationship in order to express their own individuality. "The mixtape is both personal and an expression of technological will to power", Paul Hegarty notes, "an intervention that occurs not outside but against and within power relations that structure music listening" (Hegarty). In the end, the compact cassette personal mix tape encouraged individuals to harness the creative form of music, and utilize it for their own personal expression.
Mix Tape Theory
The User Art form?
Predigested cultural artifacts combined with homespun technology and magic markers turn the mix tape to 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 heard, in what order and at what cost . - Matias Viegener, Writer and Critic (Quoted in Moore, 35).
Matias Viegener wrote the above in a short piece entitled "The mix tape as a form of American Folk Art", and the title of the piece speaks volumes about Veigener's understanding of the mix tape. For Viegener, mix tape making, like folk art, is not high brow, it is not museum art, it is creative works by the people for the people. Nonetheless, there are elements of the mix tape that make it seem inherently creative, and almost artistic in nature.
Firstly, the creation of the mix tape is inherently about self expression (Jansen 45). Describing his mix tape constructing as a teenager, chef Pat Griffin said: "these were the purest moments of my affliction, constructing my own private radio station, one that could match my teenage psychosis riff for riff, made for no other consumption than mine" (Moore 18). Like writing or painting, mix tape compilation was often seen a pure act of asserting one's owns feelings or thoughts through a kind of collage act.
Secondly, the creation of a mix tape on audio cassette involves implicit skill and technique that when executed well, some consider to be an artform. In an article entitled, "Love me, Love My Mix Tape" published in Newsweek, Jessica Bennett recalls her experience making a mix tape off the radio:
It took hours to make: every free moment curled by the boombox, the local radio station's song-request line set to speed dial, the volume knob turned loud enough to hear, but quiet enough not to wake Mom and Dad. Then, finally, the master product: a flawless combination of Alanis Morissette, Nirvana and Boyz II Men decorated, doodled on and packaged in that familiar square case that would become the soundtrack to a fleeting eighth-grade romance . (Bennett)
Almost every recollection of mix tape making emphasizes both the technique involved in making the tape, and the sheer amount of time invested in its creation (Jansen 45). This idea of technique and timing as value is an idea echoed by Pete Paphides: "In the past when you compiled a tape for someone, the time spent making it was central to its perceived value. You would also have a fairly good idea that each track followed on smoothly from the last one because the compilation would have been made in real time" (Paphides). The fact that one literally had to sit with the recorder, pressing play and stop, and syncing up each song, meant that the process of making a mix tape was a fundamentally engaging one. "Long before we learned to drag and drop, we mastered the art of pushing play, record and, sometimes, pause" says journalist Dave Phillips (Phillips). Additionally, there was the constraint of having to fit all songs within the two distinct sides, A and B, thus presenting opportunities for intensive structuring of the mix. This provided yet another challenge to the mix taper, and yet an opportunity for great creativity. (Jansen 48).
Thirdly, the creation of a mix tape was not merely the paring together of songs. Instead, it involved what Jansen calls "the quest for cohesion", not only in its musical selections, but also in its physical encasing and it's liner notes (46). A mix tape should be " a work in its own right rather than as a collection of disparate elements" (47). Cohesion, is usually attained through a variety of constraints; the creator must follow a particular theme or idea, and he/she must create a mix with interesting "flow" (47). This idea of unity, is what transforms a mix tape from being merely a selection of songs to a complete and independent unit, with it's own complete message and ideas.
While of course, not all mix tapes possess the same caliber of creative self expression resulting in a unified whole, and indeed, mix tape making is more a folk-art than any kind of high-art, there seems to be a striving for something inherently artistic, something creative in mix tape creating, that is fundamental to it as a media form.
Romance, Friendship and Gift Culture
“Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart – nothing will stop it”, said Thurston Moore in the introduction to his book (13).
While many individuals made personal mix tapes solely for individual enjoyment, a large quantity of mix tapes were received or sent as gifts, and these gifts took on a variety of different identities.
Some people argue that their mix tape gifts acted almost as letters, as direct communication through music from one person to another, containing important messages and thoughts. "In the future, when social scientists study the mix tape phenomenon, they will conclude- in fancy language- that the mix tape was a form of "speech", particular to the late twentieth century", said musician Dean Wareham (Quoted in Moore 28). The gift of a mix tape was thereby an act of communication.
But what kind of gifts were these mix tapes (ie how generous) and what kinds of messages did they send? Some mix tapes might be construed as acts of overwhelming devotion and love for another. As Wareham explains: "The message of the tape might be: I love you. I think about you all the time. Listen to how I feel about you" (28). On the other hand, many people create mix tapes for another not to express love and dedication, but instead to feed their own ego. Instead of saying I love you, it might mean "I love me. I am a tasteful person who listens to tasty things. This tape tells you all about me" (28). In the latter context the act of giving a mix tape is actually a fundamentally selfish and narcissistic act. We give mix tapes because we want the recipient to compliment our taste, our selections, and us as an interesting person deserving of love or friendship. We give because it benefits us and our ego as much as the recipient.
This idea of mix tapes as romantic gifts is heavily tackled in Nick Hornby's prized novel High Fidelity (later adapted into a film). The entire novel deals with the main character Rob's inability to fully commit to his girlfriend, largely due to his overwhelming immaturity and self-centered personality. The end, however, marks a significant departure for Rob from the narcissistic "love me" mix tape to the selfless, devotional "I love you" mix tape discussed by Wareham. It is summed up in the final lines of the novel when he discusses his girlfriend Laura:
...I start to compiled in my head a compilation tape for her, something that's full of stuff she's heard of, and full of stuff she'd play. Tonight, for the first time ever, I can sort of see how it's done. (Hornby 323).
Rob's 'coming of age' in his relationship is paralleled in how he chooses to make a mix tape. The way he relates to Laura and the way he chooses to compile and give the mix tape are clearly linked.
Mix tape as Memory
The philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in his analysis of “the self” draws an implicit connection between self identity and narrative. A human being is constantly trying to look back on their lives as a kind of unified story, drawing connections between moments and memories in order to locate some kind of meaningful whole (Jansen 50).
Ricoeur's idea of self narrative is useful in understanding how mix tapes become units of memory. There are two layers of memory that appear when one listens to an old mix tape: the mix tape itself, as a non-narrative artifact, and the stories we tell about the mix tapes (51). One might say, as Jade Gordon did: “I made this tape in the summer of 2002 for my best friend who was living in New York at the time”, and that is a statement of memory about the tape itself (Jade Gordon in Moore 77). Or, one might engage in Ricouer’s self narrative:
Listening to the tape now, even just looking at it, takes me back to my young hopeful desperate life in an apartment filled with furniture culled from the street. I’d paint on found paper while sipping the small luxury that was a cocktail, filled with the crazed energy that a newly married, just-graduated fellow ready to attack the world often is. (Christian Schumann, California- based artist, Moore 74)
For Schumann, the tape is not merely a media form, it is not simply a cassette with songs that he once enjoyed. Instead, seeing and listening to it encourages him to revisit his past with an inherently narrative and romantic eye. Mix tapes not only allowed individuals to express themselves in a particular moment, but also to construct a self in retrospect.
This idea took life in a recently published autobiographical novel by Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield called Love is a Mix Tape, where Sheffield traces his relationship with his wife Renee and her early passing through the music and mix tapes they had constructed. As Sheffield mourns his wife death, he is left pouring over "the 15 mix tapes in the book make up the soundtrack of their lives" (O'Reilly 84). With each tape representing a particular moment in his relationship with his wife, Love is a Mix Tape is literally built around the idea that we can trace our lives, and tell our stories around mix tapes. Mix tapes thereby become the artifacts of our personal memory.
Death of the Mix tape
The mix tape as it is defined here, as a compact cassette music compilation, would survive even into the CD era of the 1990s. Cassettes were still the easiest way of compiling songs, even recorded off of CDs.
Instead, it was the ability to rip CDs onto a computer and burn to blank CD-Rs that fundamentally challenged the role of the mix tape (McLeod). Now, music listeners could create music mixes on CD without the loss of sound quality on a compact cassette.
The introduction of Napster and other music downloading programs represented yet another step away from compact cassettes. Music downloading allowed users to compile mixes of exactly what songs they wanted, without even having to pay for the music or sit by the radio waiting for their song. Finally, the digitization of music, the emergence of mp3 players and the popularization of programs like iTunes means that the music "mix" or playlist needed no tangible form, no hard copy.
The Mix CD and Digital Playlist
While there is little doubt that the mix CD and the Digital Playlist are the inheritors of the mix tape, and people have gone so far as to refer to these new mediums as "mix tapes", there are fundamental specificities to the cassette medium that differentiate it from these later forms. Many of these have already been discussed:
1) The Recording Process: The first major difference between mix CD and playlist compilation and the creation of a mix tape is the experience of actually recording. As discussed previously (The User Artform?), the mix tape creation process involved time spent at the hi-fi system or boombox, carefully picking the songs, ordering the songs and then recording them in real time. "File sharing is utterly unsexy," Moore says. "It takes no time at all to knock up a playlist from your iTunes folder and give it to someone" (Moore in Paphides). Paphides adds, "in the past when you compiled a tape for someone, the time spent making it was central to its perceived value" (Paphides). The process of recording a mix tape cassette is a fundamentally engaging one, while playlists and mix CDs can be thrown together haphazardly and without any sense of the actual flow and overall experience of the mix.
2) The Tape Structure: The second major difference applies more specifically to digital playlists. While digital playlists have unlimited length and scope, the particular limit of the tape's length and it's division between side A and B forced the mix tape compiler into a particular structure and set of limits.
3) The Physical Form Finally, while there is a consistent push to deemphasize the physicality of media forms, it cannot be denied that the physical form of the cassette is bound up in how the mix tape is made and received. The packing of the mix tape and the way the casing is designed, the poor sound quality of the cassette, and the fact that in order to find a song on a mix tape one needed to fast forward or even listen through the tape to find it, were constant reminders that you were listening to your mix on a compact cassette tape. The mix CD or playlist presents an entirely different style of packaging (or in the case of the playlist, no packaging at all), high quality sound, and the ability to skip from track to track. These differences mean that the way the mix tape was experienced is distinct from these new forms.
Commercial Use of Mix Tape
In addition to its continuation in the mix CD and playlist form, the mix tape format has taken on a commercial form. This is an idea taken up by Rob Drew in his essay, "Mixed Blessings: The Commercial Mix and the Future of Music Aggregation". “In an ironic twist, old and new music industry players are exploiting the mix-tape trope in order to position themselves and reassert their dominance in this chaotic commercial environment. Such businesses are capitalizing on mix-tape nostalgia by offering an expanded range of music compilations, which are often or implicitly or explicitly marketed as alternatives comparable to homemade mixes" (534)
The result of the corporate hijaking of the mix tape idea, however, is that the user artform becomes both cheapened and commodified. The commercial mixes lack the musical diversity as well as "the interpersonal meaningfulness" of the authentic, personal mix tape. The commercial mix actually destroys the defining features of the mix tape as a user artform that challenged the status quo. "Worse yet", Drew adds "they have the potential to commodify music mixing further and to provide an excuse for further suppression of any mixing that is not commercially sanctioned”(534).
Ultimately, while the mix tape idea will continue to exist in the form of a digital playlist, with the death of cassettes (even more solidified after Sony's decision to cease manufacturing the Walkman), the mix tape idea as it is defined here, in it's own specificity, will become distant memory, like our teenage mixes of the past.
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