Praise be to the CD burner

Now is the golden age of compilations and mixes, thanks to computer technology. We should all be grateful.

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 22, 2004 7:30PM (EST)

Some three years ago, I attempted to create the perfect mix tape. It was to be a thing of art and beauty. Technically, it would be without defects, dead space between songs kept to a minimum, recording volumes carefully controlled. Musically, it would delight the discerning listener with both odd juxtapositions and sublime segues. Lyrically, it would have its own narrative arc, full of love and heartbreak.

How I labored. I was my own most vicious critic. I was ruthless, obsessive, manic. After each song was added to the mix, I would listen to the entire sequence from the beginning, to ensure that the segues were in fact flawless, that my choices stood the test of repeated exposure. If I had the slightest doubt, I would rerecord, try a different tune, go in a different direction. Over and over again.

Then, about two-thirds completed, the tape broke. The whole thing was ruined. I was heartbroken. Had too many abrupt fast-forwards and rewinds stressed the tape, or had I rerecorded my songs one too many times? I don't know, though I suppose someone may have been trying to teach me a lesson in hubris. Whatever the case, I didn't have the heart to start over. I gave up.

Then, a year or two later, oh happy day, I bought a new computer with a CD burner. And in that miracle-working piece of equipment I saw all my hopes and dreams for the revolutionary potential of digital technology realized. I can only scoff at the suggestion that the holy trinity of CD burners, digitized music and broadband access have somehow tainted the art of the mix by making the act of compiling songs too easy. Poppycock! The truth of the matter is entirely the opposite: CD burners have helped usher in a renaissance of mix-tape brilliance. They have freed me and millions of other mix-tape auteurs from drudgery, from being slaves to the machine. Thanks to the wonders of new technology, our only limitation now is our own creativity (excluding annoying digital rights management restrictions). Long live the burner: Mix-tape makers never had it so good.

Indeed, I realized, this is what computers and the Internet are for: making mix CDs!

Today, when I choose to make a mix, I can easily sort through hundreds, even thousands of songs readily available on my hard drive. No more rewinding cassette tapes endlessly to find a particular song, no more hunting through piles of CDs and albums for that elusive track. And if I need a particular song that I don't happen to have, I just go online, buy it or find it. I don't have to worry about CDs breaking or getting too scratched to play -- the playlist is always there, safe on my computer, ready to be burned again. Best of all, if I want to experiment with a different order of songs, I just drag and drop. The closest I could get to that freedom during the pre-burner Dark Ages was to program a multi-CD changer with a list of preselected songs, but even that was cumbersome.

It has long been commonplace to decry new computer technologies as somehow depersonalizing the human experience, or making things so easy that they enable stultifying laziness. Thus, word processors that make the job of revision so painless are supposed to encourage writers to indulge in mindless bloviation, secure in the knowledge that trimming the fat is just a few clicks of the delete key away. The boon of e-mail has been charged with the crime of enabling criminally colloquial communication. The restrictions built in to Microsoft's PowerPoint, we are told, even affect how we think!

In general, such comments usually strike me as neo-Luddism of the most juvenile kind. If you would like to spend your free time sharpening your quill pen, go right ahead. The rest of us will go on enjoying our spell-checkers and e-mailing our friends, while you wash your clothes by hand and haul water from the nearest well.

That is not to say that computer technology is an unalloyed boon -- just ask any outsourced Silicon Valley programmer whose job is now being done over the Internet from India or China whether the globalized job market made possible by new communications technologies is peachy-keen with him or her. Or contemplate how the increased productivity of workers, thanks to computers, may well be depressing overall employment numbers. I'll even concede that some new mediums do have harmful effects; I swear I've physically felt thousands of my own brain cells die while in the midst of one too many utterly meaningless instant messaging chats.

But that does not mean there is an inherent value to drudgery, or that we should be nostalgic about the discomfort endured when banging one's head against primitive technology. Being creative is not like training for a marathon: It's not a "no pain, no gain" type of deal. If there are ways to cut out the crap and get right to the heart of the matter, we should embrace them. Please, the next time you see a CD burner, hold it to your heart. It is proof that God smiles on the compilation maker.

With the annoying obstacles posed by archaic technologies removed, I have more time to pay attention to what really counts: the music. More time to be a perfectionist with regard to the essence of a compilation -- the act of song selection. More time to create, to think, to do. It is easier than ever to be a mix-tape artist. Yay!

Does the new ease of mix-making mean that the world will now be flooded with bad compilations, randomly gurgitated assemblies that demean our appeciation of music by implying that every juxtaposition is OK, that the "random shuffle" is culturally valuable? Perhaps. Maybe there should be some rules. Maybe people who've just been dumped by their lover should be prohibited from simultaneously imbibing alcohol and operating a CD burner. Hey, every rose does have its thorn, but that doesn't mean the band Poison needs to live for eternity in a million maudlin mixes.

But, really, I don't care. I'll take that trade-off every time, in return for having my own shackles loosened.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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