The Lost Art of the Mixtape

Lego, Al Bowlly and the 1990s

Music has always been a prominent part of my life, from as far back as I can remember.

Casting my mind back, one of my earliest memories involves me with a box of Lego, pieces scattered across the floor, building something ambitious whilst listening to either Al Bowlly or Abba on my Mum’s old cassette recorder.  Why I ended up listening to either a 1920s Jazz Singer or a 1970s Swedish Pop quartet, I have no idea. But I guess it formed the basis for what was to become a fairly eclectic taste in music that I enjoy now, almost 40 years later.

I feel very fortunate to have grown up during the period within which I did.  Childhood through the 1980s, adolescence from the early 90s, entering the new millennium as an adult.
For me, the 1990s represented the best decade in my living memory for music. So many genres, be it new or established, found their feet and, more importantly, an audience. There was no shortage of awesome music that could take you down any path, be it Grunge, Acid House, Jungle, Hip-Hop, Britpop, Acid Jazz, R&B, Rock, Metal, Pop.

It was during the 90s that, being a heterosexual teenage guy, I discovered another interest – girls.
I went to a mixed comprehensive school, so I had a mixed group of friends. However, I was unsure of what was required to take a friendship with a girl to the next level.  With no internet to call upon for answers, the only logical approach was to craft a mixtape to convey, through the power of music, my words and feelings that other artists had already conveniently nailed down.

The Mixtape (in detail)

The mixtape was a process that required incredible care and attention. If you wanted to get the girl’s attention, this mixtape had to be your finest piece of work. Amateurs need not apply. 

The mixtape was only to be taken very seriously, and the devil is in the detail.  To start, typically you haven’t got a nice, fresh cassette with a clean label, so down to Our Price you go, where you had to make the difficult choice between, not only whether you should go for the 5-pack of C60s or C90s, but whether you choose the regular quality of cassette OR do you go down the quality route and choose the ‘Metal’ version. Will the recipient really appreciate the finer quality of the metal tape, making me more of a refined connoisseur in her eyes, perhaps?  Would I regret not choosing the metal tape if this mixtape fails to deliver?
More often than not, this choice is made for you by the pathetic amount of cash in your wallet, so It’s a regular pack of C60s that you walk out with.

30 minutes of music, per side…including a 5-8 second blank lead in to Side A, along with around 5 seconds gap between tracks, that’s around 7 to 8 tracks you’ve got to work with.
You absolutely have to build the flow of the music, so the choice and ordering of the tracks are critical.  My mixtape signature style was to build to my favourite song, the one I really wanted her to listen to, which would come in at around number 3 or 4 on Side A.  This was the song that contained the lyrics that I wanted to verbally convey, but couldn’t due to:

A: Nerves
B: Awkwardness
C: Fear of rejection
D: A massive zit that had appeared, out of nowhere, on my face, which rendered an in-person delivery of my thoughts and feelings absolutely impossible
E: A combination of the above

OK, so you’ve got the track sandwiched in there, you’re far from home and dry yet.  You’ve got to finish it off and to a high standard.  If you realise that you’ve miscalculated your timings and run out of tape at the end of Side A or B, not completing the track in full, then you start again.
I once received a mixtape from a girl that, generally, was pretty good.  However, her craft was just not as advanced as I considered my own to be, so when she started a track at the end of Side A, ran out of tape, and rather haphazardly continued the track on side B, I just knew we weren’t meant to be together.  I’d become a mixtape snob.

These mixtapes were pure gold, full of love, angst, emotion and just raw energy.  With pop music, there’s so much to choose from as material.  And pop music is there to cushion the blow when the mixtape doesn’t have the intended effect either.  As the brilliant John Cusack, as Rob, once said in High Fidelity, paraphrasing, “What came first, the music or the misery….did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music”?

So, did the mixtape work?  Sometimes, yes, it delivered. I’ve since calculated that metal tapes yielded a 13.4% increase in success rate vs. regular tapes. It’s about quality, not quantity, after all…

I feel sad that this humble artform risks becoming just another footnote in the history of our popular culture. To do a mixtape well, really well, it took an inordinate amount of time, planning and effort.
It’s so easy with playlists now.  Granted, the ordering of tracks is important, but you’re not confined within the limitations imposed by the finite time lengths of physical media.
Louis Armstrong famously sung “We Have All the Time in the World”. Not with 60 minutes of cassette you don’t pal!