Things I Want My Daughter To Know: The Art of the Mixtape

This is the first post in the Things I Want My Daughter To Know series.

My favorite movie of all time is the film adaptation of Nick Hornby‘s novel, High Fidelity. It has kind of become the bible for music snobs and rightfully so. Toward the end of the film, John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon,  describes the “subtle art” of making a mixtape. It IS an art and one that has been lost in the realm of digital music and iTunes.

I will not lie, I use iTunes everyday. I listen to music a lot of my computer and use my iPhone for music in my car and while at work. Convenience has its benefits; but, every once in a while every music fan should take a day to make a true, proper mixtape.

My mix tape days started in the early 90s in the era of grunge. True compilation tapes can take songs from many sources: radio, CDs, cassettes, and in the purist form from vinyl records. In the 90s, I used the first three.

iTunes has taught us that “playlists” can easy be created by dragging and dropping songs from your catalog. I’ll admit, I do this often but it definitely loses the appeal of a true mixtape. Little thought goes into creating these compilations and they usually turn out to be just another collection of songs I want to hear at that given moment. This is not an artistic process and does not result in the creation of a true mixtape. Remember, “High Fidelity” – A true mixtape is an art.

A true mixtape requires hours or even days of planning. Remember, what Rob Gordon says – “you are using someone elses poetry to express how you feel; this is a delicate thing.” You are also trying to tell a story about your emotions at that moment and these songs may or may not be ones that may not be in current rotation in your life.

1. Start with a legal pad. You will want something large enough for lots of scratching out.
2. Think about what kind of theme you want your tape to have. Are you making it for your significant other? Is it to express anger? Are you depressed and want a compilation of sad bastard music to help you mope? A good compilation has to have a theme otherwise its just a meaningless collection of songs.
3. Go through your library and find music that reflects how you feel at that moment. If you no longer have CDs, tapes, or records – shame on you! You have no soul. Moving on.
4. Certain tracks will jump out at you right away, others may take some listening. Be sure to take the time to listen to some tracks. Take in the lyrics.
5. Begin writing out your list. You do not want your compilation to be too short or too long. Less than 12 songs is difficult to convey a message; more than 20 is overkill and your meaning is usually lost. The 15 song mark is usually where I come in.
6. Once you have a list of songs that fit your mood, you begin the second most difficult part – sequencing.
7. Think about bookends. What would “Nevermind” be without leading off with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ending with “Something In The Way” (or “Endless Nameless” depending on which pressing you own)? Nothing! Those songs are perfect bookends.
8. Work out different sequencing options on your legal pad. You will scratch out a lot! This is a good thing. I wish I kept some of these notes over the years, as they truly show an artist in progress.
9. Once you are satisfied with you order, begin recording the tape. Unlike iTunes, this will actually require you to listen to the music while you play it. You may have to repeat these steps again before your tape is truly complete. Sometimes (er, often) once you make a first draft of your tape, it just doesn’t sound the way it should when you listen to it in order. You may have to re-sequence, add or omit a song, and record again.
10. Finally, think of a clever name for your tape and create some unique cover art.

You may ask, why would anyone do this when there are better ways? It’s so easy to burn a mix CD from iTunes. Why would I want to spend hours creating a compilation on outdated technology that most people stopped buying more than a decade ago?

People are losing the ability to connect with music in a meaningful way. Today’s casual music fans listen for a “catchy beat” or something “fun.” The late 90s really screwed music fans with the resurgence of boy bands and crappy pop punk. Mixtapes are a process but they allow us to put time and effort into being a fan and finding ways to connect to the music we love unique ways.

Fortunately, my daughter will have all of my CDs, tapes, and records at her disposal. She already loves popular music more than the average year-and-a-half old. She knows what a turntable is points to that when she wants to hear music more than she does the computer. For this, I couldn’t be more proud.

Have I missed anything? What are your experiences with making mixtapes?

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One Response to Things I Want My Daughter To Know: The Art of the Mixtape

  1. You might be the coolest dad ever! There truly is an art to making a good mix tape, and now she’ll be prepared to make an awesome one! My hs boyfriend made me one that has since been lost, but I still have his legal paper with each song and why he put the song on the tape. He put a lot of thought into it, and that is the best quality in a mix tape you’re giving to someone. Even when I make a playlist on my iTunes, it’s a process that can sometimes take me a couple hours. Glad I’m not alone!

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