The art of the mixtape

Even in the digital age, music fans cling to the retro joy of handmade mixtapes

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Mixtape exchange at Dead Media // Photo by Jay Gabler

“It’s the exclusivity, the physical object, the artwork,” says Simon Brooks of Minneapolis record store Dead Media. “You can hold it. It degrades. It’s not like an MP3 that will last forever.”

The rise of cassette tapes in the 1970s enabled a uniquely personal sort of mix-making—you could customize a set of songs and record them onto a tape that you could give to a friend. By the ’80s, cassette recorders were ubiquitous and every music fan could be his or her own DJ.

My dad taught me how to make elaborate mixtapes using his reel-to-reel tape player. Sourcing his playlists from records, CDs, and tapes, he’d use a pair of microphones to generate multi-hour mixes for his friends—creating reel-to-reel masters that he’d then use to make copies on cassette.

Since then, of course, set-list sharing has gone digital. You can share a Spotify playlist in the time it takes to rewind a cassette. But the charm of the analog mix still resonates. Dead Media hosts an ongoing, informal mixtape exchange. “We just had a bunch of tapes laying around that people made in high school for their friends or had in their collection,” Brooks says. “We started putting them up on the wall near the door with a sign: take one, leave one. Slowly it’s become a thing. You forget about it, then you look back and five or six tapes have come and gone. Cool, weird stuff shows up.”

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Mixtape exchange at Dead Media // Photo by Jay Gabler

Libby Cudmore’s new novel “The Big Rewind,” a murder mystery that hinges on the contents of a mixtape, is the latest in a long line of books and movies (“High Fidelity,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and so on) that have enshrined the mixtape as the ne plus ultra of music-geek personal expression, especially between potential romantic partners.

“Music is, for so many people, not only a way to understand how they’re feeling at that moment, but can illustrate how they might feel for somebody else,” Cudmore says. “It taps into emotions that sometimes we can’t quite figure out for ourselves. So to give somebody a mix is like giving them a love letter. It’s saying, ‘This is how I feel about you, and I can’t even say it myself, so somebody else has to.’”

Personally, mixtapes never did much for me in the romance department. (Once, I made a set of five mixtapes, put them in a coffee can, and mailed them to a woman I had a crush on. She then told me her boyfriend asked her to not talk to me anymore.) I was always more likely to make mixes for family members or friends, both as gifts and because I was hoping to inspire reciprocation.

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Mixtape exchange at Dead Media // Photo by Jay Gabler

Plenty of other people use mixtapes—and their slightly more contemporary counterparts, mix CDs—for more than just facilitating hookups, too.

“One of my friends got into a bad car accident,” remembers Toni Lindgren, a local guitarist who was recommended to me for her mix-making skills. “When she was coming out of the hospital we were giving her a bunch of feel-good presents. I made a mix for her. As she was coming out of it—she had a traumatic brain injury, so it was like getting to know each other again—having a mix with songs we used to listen to together became a starting point for bringing that back.”

Abbie Gobeli, a University of Minnesota graduate who just moved to Seattle, has started making a mix a day both to chronicle her first year in her adopted city and to share some of her favorite music with her friends. She’s not making tapes, though—her “Resonance 365” project is entirely on Spotify.

“I tend to soundtrack my mood and whatever’s going on in my daily life,” she says. “So I decided to make a challenge for myself to make a different playlist every day.”

The fact that her mixes are online means that Gobeli can share each mix with all of her friends, instantly. “I’ll watch on Spotify to see who’s listening to what, and I’ll see a lot of people digging into different playlists. I’ve been getting nothing but good feedback, and even some cool suggestions for playlists.”

That doesn’t mean she’s abandoned the physical mixtape, though. “Mixtapes are more personal [than digital playlists],” Gobeli says. “It’s this tangible thing, this gift you’re going to give. It’s like, ‘Here it is! Hope you like it!’ It’s that awkward Christmas-gift moment.”

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