"A good mix tape, to me, is one that goes beyond the scope of mere compilation. It requires forethought. It should be the expression of a feeling or idea. Each side of the tape should have an arc to it. The arc should leave you wanting more. It should make you want to flip that tape to the other side and keep on listening, over and over and over again," says Scott Carney, lead singer and songwriter for Wax Fang, a band many believe is primed to be Louisville's next act to hit it big nationally.
The evolution from cassette to CD has certainly affected the mix tape. The most obvious change is the time limit. A single cassette had room for between 90-110 minutes, but the CD restricts you to 80 minutes. So, making just one CD has meant mix tape artisans need to be more selective. If that aspect of the CD is more confining, the ability to design artwork and labels has totally been altered, freeing up further creativity. The lack of a template and the shape of a cassette - especially in the pre-PC days - made creative expressions beyond a mere track listing difficult and limited.
Now, you can create seamless covers and liner notes if you so desire. Titles are often an important factor that merit thought and usually somehow encapsulate the vibe of the collected music. Oh, and the creation of the mix tape has become exponentially easier and less time consuming. No longer do we need to push tape deck and CD player buttons simultaneously or drop the needle on the record in the right spot. We don't have to guess how much time we have left, necessitating a manual fadeout performed on tape deck dials.
So with this sort of toil in mind, if someone made a mix tape for you in the 80s or 90s, they must have thought you were a pretty big deal ... or maybe not. The intent of a mix tape is varied. There are those who make mix tapes for all sorts of friends, classmates, and co-workers. For most, it's simply because they are music fans who like to share new music and hidden gems. They like exposing others to music and being exposed themselves. According to Carney, "The best mix tape I ever received was from my friend, Jim Mueller of Pittsburgh. It was called, "Hold On, Ye Hippies" and contained some great stuff I hadn't then heard before: LOVE, Neu!, the Silver Apples, and Gong to name a few."
Music lovers tend to like to influence others, and there are times we believe if someone else just heard a certain song, they, too, would immediately love it. Maybe that could start a grassroots groundswell of interest in an artist. Suddenly those we believe should be popular actually become "overnight" successes. Other mix tape creators would rather their favorite artists remain under the proverbial radar. They feel like they have a stake, sort of an ownership in a certain band. They don't even want an "I knew them when" scenario. Part of being a music hipster is to like bands no one else has even heard of, and there are those that think a band sells out simply because they get radio play. Think of some R.E.M. fans in the late 80s.
Most likely you wouldn't be making a mix tape if you didn't want to pass "your" music onto others. Some Communication professors might even suggest there's an underlying level of comfort and friendship necessary to entrust others with songs that resonate so personally with us. Then again, it just may be one of those "you've got to hear this" moments. The mix tape can also be a personalized gift created with the receiver in mind, taking into account his or her likes, dislikes, and circumstances.
For instance, if a friend is expecting a baby, a newborn-themed tape with songs like John Mellencamp's Your Life is Now and Marc Cohn's The Things We Handed Down may work. Sometimes our mix tapes are a compilation of songs by one artist, serving as a means of introduction to someone. For example, to a friend uninformed on the Blues, you may want to make your own best of Keb' Mo or Buddy Guy collection. Or to a pal who's a passive Bruce Springsteen fan, you may want to make a B-sides or live mix to get deeper into the E Street catalog. I have made numerous CDs for my kids. Maybe that explains why my third grader always would choose Rodney Crowell's Earthbound or Seal's Get it Together over John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
Of course, there is another intent of a mix tape. While it certainly happens, and a girl may make a mix tape for a guy, guys have used the mix tape as a means of wooing a lass for years. No doubt some high school kid at Trinity in 1978 used a TDK-SA 90 filled with Bob Segar and Kansas to melt an Assumption girl's heart. And guys, you might have waited until you were older to make a mix tape for a girl you weren't interested in dating. As a youth, you didn't want to send the wrong message. Whether or not the mix tape ever actually worked in sending the right message is another story, but the implication was that to a small degree you were putting your heart out there in the form of a mix tape with songs you carefully chose, sending a message about how you felt about her. Perhaps, like Lloyd Dobbler, all you got in return was a pen.
But no one ever said we only make mix tapes for others. For me, up tempo songs are more often reserved for other people's CDs with introspective stuff generally kept for myself . The Cure's Just Like Heaven and The Blow Monkeys' Digging Your Scene opened side two of a tape I made for my wife in the late 90s. Last year, for her birthday, her mix included The Roots' Why followed by Gorillaz's Dirty Harry, and then Electronic' Second Nature. It's not that I don't use any peppy songs in my own mix tapes, it's just that the mix tape seems to serve a different purpose when created for my personal use.
Since 1989, I have made an annual mix each July simply titled "The Summer Tape," which basically includes my favorite songs since the previous summer. Many songs are from releases of the current and previous year. Some are on CDs I got during the last twelve months regardless of when the title came out. So, a "new" song to me may have been released a decade earlier. If I was introduced to older acts with an album I purchased during the preceding year, it was fair game for "The Summer Tape." That's why Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash all found their way on 90's summer mixes.
"The Summer Tape" has taken a life of its own, always incurring great thought and planning. A preliminary list gets whittled down, and much like a coach during tryouts, tough cuts are made. This year's touch cuts included Mumford and Sons' The Cave and Rogue Wave's Lake Michigan. There have been moments of pseudo clever back-to backs like 1994's U2's Stay (Faraway, So Close!) followed by Lisa Loeb's Stay. In 1999, Mary Chapin Carpenter's Almost Home and Del Amitri's Don't Come Home Too Soon concluded the tape. In 2000, Wilco's Summerteeth was followed by The Sundays' Summertime. For me, introspective songs are usually ordered consecutively but never at the beginning of the tape or disc. In 1998, for example, Shane McGowan and Marie Brennan's You're the One, Jars of Clay's Frail, ELO's Stranger, and the Youssou N'Dour-Neneh Cherry duet 7 Seconds gave me a contemplative 20 minutes in the middle of side 2. Similarly, 2005's coda of The Finn Brothers' Edible Flowers and Trashcan Sinatras' Weightlifting concluded the tape with the introspection I was hoping to achieve.
Regardless of what effect you are looking for, song order is essential. Louisville singer-songwriter, pianist, guitarist, and everyone's favorite redheaded accordionista Brigid Kaelin, concurs on song order. "Something that amazes me about a good mix is how it can stick in your head years later. I'll hear a song on the radio that was on a mix tape someone made me, and I expect to hear the next song on the mix immediately following. But of course, that never happens because it's the radio, not my old tape" says Kaelin, who is quick to add "Honestly, I haven't made one in years. I'll make playlists on occasion, but I never spend the kind of time I used to on them. I'll just hit shuffle or sort them alphabetically and hope for the best. I'm either too busy or too lazy to worry about song order these days."
Kaelin makes an important point. Mix tapes take time and effort. In her case, she's usually always either playing live, writing, or recording, so her free time is limited. But it also doesn't mean mix tape making is just for high school kids with a summer off and time on their hands, either.
Part of the glory of the mix tape is that we all have our methods, including Kaelin. "I used to get really nerdy with my mix tapes, as in music-theory-nerdy. I would do things like make entire mix tapes with songs in key of G, or do the opposite and find twelve songs in twelve different keys," Kaelin recalls. "My friends never noticed that about tapes I made for them, but I like to think it made for smooth transitions between songs. See? I told you I was nerdy about it." Really, there's nothing nerdy about that. In fact it underscores the potential differences in how a musician as opposed to simply a music fan creates a mix tape.
And sometimes even what seemingly has no method just might. My brother is arguably a mix tape master, and I have collected dozens over the years from him. His "Windows Media Player Randomly Generated Sounds of Serenity," a two-disc set, which replicated a shuffled Microsoft playlist - from KISS to John Lee Hooker to Madness to a speech by President Eisenhower - was not a normal mix tape, but one with a purpose that seemingly had no purpose. But making tapes for yourself (or others) doesn't necessarily mean it's a collection of various artists. In 1985 I made a mix of Clarence Clemons sax solos. No one else even heard it. Talk about laborious; I tediously put the needle on the correct groove to each solo.
Local piano and accordion virtuoso Todd Hildreth has a unique mix tape method of his own that doesn't involve a gaggle of artists, either. "I made many a mix tape in my day, but my favorite ones were when I simply juxtaposed two seemingly different artists and their recordings. I just put the two into my CD player on shuffle and hit record," says Hildreth who fronts Squeeze-bot and is known for his work in Java Men, Liberation Prophecy, and his own jazz trio, to name just a few. "Two that come to mind were Beck's Mellow Gold mixed with Sun Ra's solo piano recording Satellites and Monorails. At first they seemed very different, but as you listened to the cuts against each other, you began to see at the base, two sonic innovators with wonderfully surreal senses of humor."
Another favorite tape was one in which Hildreth paired Rufus Wainright's Poses with a solo jazz accordion record by Frank Marocco. "Once again, they were different but complimentary, with Rufus being deeply rooted in American popular song and cabaret, and this great accordion artist playing standards in his own way," says Hildreth.
Mark Downs, local musician and software developer, is so in tune with the popularity of the mix tape he is creating a website that will allow mix tape enthusiasts to share their favorite playlists with each other. "Every activity, mood, or season of life has an appropriate mix tape. Whether it's camping with some friends, cooking dinner, or driving home from work on a Friday, some songs just fit each occasion perfectly and become the soundtrack to your life," says Downs, who plans to launch PlaylistFor.com sometime in late 2010. Downs vividly remembers making a mix tape with his brother as a twelve year-old as they prepared for a flight to Daytona Beach.
This highlights a popular occasion for making a mix tape: going on vacation. "We both concluded that the perfect song for takeoff, when the G-force is pushing you back in your chair as the jet gains speed and lifts from the ground, was Rio by Duran Duran. The intro really could have been in Top Gun. Years later when my brother became a professional pilot, he would still sometimes listen to that song as he pulled back the yoke."
Much like Downs' recollection, for most of us, mix tapes give us a snapshot onto a period of our lives, and the songs become indelibly linked to a place in time, an event, and maybe even a person. James Bickers, morning DJ at 91.9 WFPK waxes nostalgic on the issue. "Mix tapes are bittersweet to me. We still have one that I made for my wife, oh, 20 years ago when we were still dating. We don't own a single cassette player anymore, but the tape itself is something she cherishes."
Of course, this brings up the proverbial can of worms concerning obsolete technology. The cassette tape is not obsolete; it's not in the same category as the reel to reel or 8-track player. In fact, our 2003 Toyota Highlander has a cassette player in it. But tapes that got heavy rotation in our cars and boom boxes now often sit, collecting dust in Tupperware bins in the basement. While many stereophiles still own tape decks, and there always seems to be Walkmans plentifully available at yard sales, for many of us it has been a while since we popped in a cassette tape. Maybe you have transferred some old mix tapes to CD or an iPod playlist as a means of preserving the collection. Of course, that also means preserving the memories.
Bickers continues. "One thing that I've done intermittently - an idea I got from my buddy Bill Yackey - is to use mix tape and playlists as time capsules. So there's a playlist in my iTunes called "August 2010," and it's all the songs I'm loving right now," says the longtime Louisville radio regular and owner of eclectic musical tastes. "Then you go and look back on lists from a year ago and it's amazing how much stuff you forget. Kind of like the musical equivalent of writing in a diary." Years later you may wonder why you ever put a certain song on the tape, or you may read a title and not even recognize the song. Hearing the tapes can bring back things you had forgotten, some of which can be extremely mundane.
For example, my 1993 summer tape begins with Hothouse Flowers' This is It (Your Soul) and New Order's Liar. I remember buying those CDs the same day at Circuit City by Jefferson Mall in the spring of '93. (The readers collectively now ask "Who cares?") Talk about seemingly inconsequential. Years later we can also revisit bands we once enjoyed but have nearly since forgotten: The Beloved, Suddenly Tammy!, and The Katydids come to my mind. I once included a Judybats song on a tape for a friend around 1990; she still has the tape, but I have long since gotten rid of Down in The Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow. We can even revisit our mix tape carelessness. On the three Valentine's Day tapes I made for my wife between 1996-1999, I included Barenaked Ladies' You Will Be Waiting - on each of them.
Making mix tapes is ironically completely scientific yet not scientific at all. It needs those arcs and twists and turns but needs to maintain a flow and purpose. Like musical tastes in general, the tastes of mix tape makers will always vary. While I may think the quintessential Valentine's mix should include Sade's No Ordinary Love, Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes, and Roxy Music's Avalon, someone else might prefer Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, Van Morrison's Have I Told You Lately?, and Elvis' Love Me Tender. Again, the subjectivity of the mix tape is partially what makes it so good and so much a reflection of its compiler, the receiver, and the occasion.
A mix tape of Louisville bands would be an interesting theme. From the breezy fun of Love Jones to the melodic sheen of Cabin to the funk of King Kong to the haunting punch of Slint to the harmonies of The Watson Twins to the soulful vocals of Joan Osborne to the grandiose rock of My Morning Jacket, it could make for quite a mix tape and a great way to introduce people out of town to homegrown bands. Oh, and it's OK to send it to someone you're not interested in dating.