For me, mix tapes and radio shows have a lot in common; as they both make an attempt to compile a collection of pieces of music in order to share a particular mood, highlight a specific genre, or communicate a special message to listeners (or to the object of one’s desire).
I used to do thematic radio shows, often with hidden messages (intended for my crush) and it was very much like a public mix tape for me. After my show I would dub a cassette copy, craft case art and jot down track names and titles before presenting the mix to the one who I was trying to impress.
A few years later I took my mix-making to the online world, penning playlists for a start-up called Uplister. What made that site unique was that our playlists had room for liner notes built in next to each track. Although we only had 30 second sound clips for each piece of music, what really brought the lists to life were the accompanying narrative written by each playlist-maker. Suddenly mix tapes compiled after a break-up took on new meaning, when the story was shared along with the music selections.
At the time (2000-2001) we had big plans for Uplister, with our founders boldly proclaiming that the playlist was the “next unit of global music consumption.” I’m not sure that’s happened, but playlists have become a common method for people to understand and group music from their collections.
Brown University graduate student Ben Nicholson takes a look at the modern day mix tape in his paper, Playlist: 21st Century Mix Tape, published in a recent issue of Technomusicology: A Sandbox Journal. Ben writes about how music collecting and sharing has changed since the advent of digital music, arguing that:
“Music has largely moved from the shelf to the hard drive in the 21st century. Digitally-encoded mp3s have made the storage and transportation of music more efficient and, once one has acquired a computer, less expensive than ever before…Ten years ago, a CD collector might sort their music collection by hand, organizing their CDs into an alphabetized archive located either on a shelf or in a CD tower. The acquisition of a new CD could require a reorganization of the entire collection in order for the CD to physically fit into its proper place…For an mp3 collector, however, these organizational headaches are remedied by software; iTunes will sort all of your music for you.”
I was also interested in Ben’s discussion about technologies that attempt to replicate personalized mix tapes, including Apple’s Genius Mixes. He writes that an evaluation of software that attempted to group playlists thematically found that:
“Listeners preferred playlists with an organizing principle, playlists that were more like mix tapes…Though it is unlikely that automated mix software and corporately sponsored playlists will replace manual/amateur mix construction, the fact that software developers are attempting to perfect their playlist algorithms and that iTunes is opening a playlist market indicates that the concept of the personalized mix is important to digital music distributors.”
What do you think? Do computer-generated mix tapes hold the same allure as a mix tape passed from person to person? Is it the one-to-one connection from sender to receiver that makes for the power of the mix or is the collection of songs enough? And how do services like Pandora fit into the equation? Or hand-curated radio shows for that matter?
Although it makes sense that music recommendation services would attempt to replicate hand-made mixes, I can’t imagine that people will be wooing potential mates with Genius Mixes or Pandora playlists or that those lists will end up in shoe boxes along with old love letters. But then again, in decades to come the artifacts of a courtship may all be housed in digital files or on remote servers. Yesterday’s ticket stubs, photographs, and saucy letters written in cursive will probably be replaced by files full of racy text messages, You Tube videos chronicling first dates, and romantic blog posts.