Mixtapes Reborn

As an overly earnest, romantic-hearted teenager, I used to spend hours creating mixtapes by waiting with my fingers poised over the record and play buttons on the tape deck so that I could capture the next perfect song from the radio. I just had to hope the DJ wouldn’t talk over any part of the song.

It was a labor of love to create a mixtape from the radio. I lived in a large enough radio market that I had no hope of getting a song request played by phoning in to the station. However living near a large-ish radio market had its upsides, too. There were a half dozen stations I could turn to for source material. As a byproduct of many hours avoiding my family in the refuge of my bedroom, I became pretty good at knowing which station to turn to, and when, if I was looking for a certain song. As long as I wasn’t seeking any esoteric choices, I was bound to find the songs I was looking for over the span of about a week.

I made the bulk of my early teenage mix tapes for myself. I desperately wanted somebody to make them for, but a girlfriend seemed as unrealistic a dream as winning the lottery, and the toxic cocktail of insecurity, bigotry, and ignorance prevented me from the thought of making a mix tape for a friend because what if that made them think I was gay?

By the time my college years came around, technology was advanced to the point that the term mixtape was about to become a quaint anachronism. Compact Discs had recently surpassed cassette tapes as the primary method for purchasing and consuming music albums. CD Burners were still inaccessible for my budget, but now all I had to do was borrow from a friend’s CD collection to gain access to just the right song to add to a mix tape. Along with compact disc technology came the wonders of Adobe Photoshop 1.0, which I used to create custom “album art” for mixtapes. This was a magical time for mixtapes for a few reasons. First, I had figured out how to fake being cool and interesting just long enough to get girlfriends! So I had an audience beyond my own Walkman headphones for my mixes. Secondly, while the creation and gifting of mixtapes was by no means a novel concept, nobody in my social circle was making or receiving mixtapes with custom cover art. So I liked to think I was making something special. Plus, it still took a tremendous amount of devotion to craft a mixtape as you still had to hunt down the right CD and manually record one track at a time to cassette.

To my recollection, downloadable mp3 and affordable CD-RW hardware came along at about the same time. This felt like the death of the mixtape as an art form. The procurement process was now gone. All you had to do was exercise the patience for your songs of choice to download over dialup or, if you were fancy, DSL. And so, for me, the mixtape as labor of love was over. I kept the practice up for a couple seasons of “I’m a young teacher on a budget so here’s a CD of Christmas songs I’ve pirated” for family Xmas gifts but for the most part, the mixtape was dead and buried for solid twenty years.

I am a recent (and very late) adopter of Spotify. So my discovery of the social features of the service is likely to be no revelation to most of my readers.

My first fun discovery with Spotify playlists is the ability to share them with others. So I’ve had some fun creating various playlists, with what seems like infinite access to any song I think of, no matter how esoteric. After more exploration, I discovered the Collaborative Playlist feature. This lets me invite others to collaborate in the creation and curation of a playlist. I’ve done this with five very close friends and it’s been a revelation which has inspired the following reflections:

  • Sharing music is a sort of communion. The act of listening to our collaborative playlist makes me feel a closeness of connection with my friends. Whether it’s a nostalgic favorite, a recent obsession, or a poorly-considered prank, each song that each friend adds tells me something about their state of mind and heart when they chose to add that song. Each song makes me know each collaborator a little more intimately than I did before.
  • Curiosity is better than judgement. I find I hold some assumptions and stereotypes about each of the five friends who are collaborating on this playlist. Some of them are accurate. For example, I know these guys well enough that I can guess with about 85% accuracy who added a song, based on music genre, artist, and musical key. It’s a fun game to play, guessing who added each song as it comes up on shuffle. But there’s a danger here. There’s a pig-eyed ugly part of me that wants to leap to conclusions about the taste of a certain friend when a song I want to skip comes up. But! If I refrain from snap judgement and practice the discipline of maintaining my curiosity, I have a 1:1 conversational opener. “This song is an interesting addition, can you tell me why you chose it?” leads to interesting conversation 100% of the time.
  • We are made for connection. It’s nice to discover new-to-me music through this process, but the ultimate satisfaction comes when a song comes on that I was planning to add, but one of my friends beat me to it. It’s actually kind of eerie to examine the timeline of when the song was added compared against when I started thinking of it. I’m not ready to make some kind of mystical leap into music as supernatural connector of people. Not yet, anyhow. I guess it’s a little bit like the moment of feeling connected to another person when you both show up wearing the exact same outfit. It’s kind of a “I see you, man. And I know you see me. Look at how obviously connected and compatible we are.” But we don’t ever say that to each other. Maybe we should!

I’m grateful for friendship and I am going to continue to consider other ways I may be able to cause those I love, those I value, to feel the sense of inclusion, connection, and regard that my friends’ participation in a collaborative playlist has created for me. The playlist is less than a week old and has over 22 hours of music on it. I’m curious to see how this, the reincarnation of the mixtape, evolves for us.

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