Monday, October 29, 2007

lovesong for the cassette

I was going through our storage locker a handful of weeks ago. Came across an old tape, a cassette to be painfully accurate. It was a live concert of my friend, Matt Trowbridge (formerly "Trowy", now Dr. Matthew Trowbridge) performing at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, GA. Back in the day, Dr. Trowbridge was a gifted singer/songwriter (I'm sure he still plays. I'm certain. Well, hopeful.) and at my insistence had given me a copy of this show he'd done. A relatively quick set of 7 or 8 songs, but it's gold. It's worth it just to listen to the earnestness of the introductions.

Anyway, I found the tape and have played it a number of times since its resurrection, but it got me thinking about the idea of tapes and specifically of "mixes" and the craft of making a great mix tape. In the iTuned mp3 world we live in now, making a mix tape requires almost nothing of the mixer. It's literally dragging tracks from a library to a folder and then fiddling with the order. But such was not the case 15 years ago, when putting together a tape for friends, or a girl, or as catharsis for yourself actually required commitment.

My process was (and still is to some degree) always the same. First of all, there was a need to understand the rules (spins on which can be found here and here). My rules are simple:
  1. no repeat artists - there's enough great music out there that you should never need to rely on one band twice per mix
  2. think about variety and experiential arc - I don't prescribe to fast fast fast. slow slow slow. I listen to the ending of one track before finalizing the next one. It's got to flow. That might mean strings to strings or drumbeat to drumbeat or it might be a HUGE wake-up after an earned moment of silence. It just has to feel right.
  3. stay away from compilations - they are for cheaters. no mixes should be stolen. Yes, the soundtrack to Garden State is great. But don't copy half the songs and give them to me as your thoughtful contribution.
  4. don't give up - if you're tired of the process, go do something else and then come back to it. It's an artistic process. It requires something of you. Push though it or know your limits, but don't just stop and don't just throw six Stevie Wonder tracks on the end because you know they're killer.
And it is with those things in mind that I make my list. I would go through all my tapes and 45s and make a giant list of all the tracks I loved for that mix, and note the speed (fast, slow, med) and play time when possible (you've got to be aware of what you can fit on one side of a 90 minute tape). Then you start planning possible playlists. Each side is its own playlist. Each side must be considered separately. The two sides should connect from the standpoint of mood, but it's like the band came back from a break and had to get the crowd from moment one again.

Again, contrast that to today when a decent playlist takes maybe a couple of hours. It's still fun, but not nearly as meaningful. The connection to the mix is gone. Not to the music, there's an important distinction. The music is still moving, engrossing, alive, but the time, the pain, the song that was longer than you thought and got cut off, the starting over, the ruined tape because somebody hit record, the hours of planning and planning and care...they are lost in the drag-and-click model - gone the way of the cassettes that get locked up in storage lockers and lost to garbage cans.

One step further would be to look at all artistic processes. The value is coming back around for artisans. A hand-made chest of drawers. Personally tailored clothing. Original pottery. Photos taken and framed by someone you know. These things have value not just because they are "one of a kind", but because being "one of a kind" usually means that somebody poured their heart, energy, and attention into the construction of that object. I think we need more of those. Lots more. It's worth the extra time.

Now, if we could only get it all to fit neatly on side B.


Tim F said...

So are your friends giving you mix CDs now? Mine are and I find I rarely play them. I don't doubt they took as much time, care, concern over the track sequencing and the cover art as they did to the tapes we used to share/trade, but something has been lost in translation.

Everything old is worth celebrating. I think it was Thurston Moore who first waxed on about mix tapes, getting by with a little help from his friends, natch.

jason Gingold said...


feeling you. i literally had the experience of someone giving me a "mix cd" of the romeo + juliet movie soundtrack (which was a mix already). it's amazing what is lost in art when the need for craftsmanship is taken out of the equation.

the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)