Letters

"The mix tape is dead. Long live the mix tape." Readers respond to Joel Keller's "PCs Killed the Mix-Tape Star" and Andrew Leonard's "Praise Be to the CD Burner."


Salon Staff
January 27, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read the lament for the mix tape and the paean to the CD burner.]

I was heartened by Joel Keller's article. It would seem that mix tapes have gone the way of the dinosaur, along with letters, photographs and the like, all brushed callously aside in favor of their newer, digital counterparts. It warmed my heart to know I have a kindred spirit in mourning their loss.

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One could argue that things are now more convenient (in a world under the constant "threat" of a terrorist attack, time is precious, after all...), and to avoid hypocrisy I would have to agree that once in a while I appreciate the quick fix. But something important has been lost in the transition: meaning. The inherent meaning in such archaic media that is a byproduct of the effort put into them.

The mix tape was a subtle art, one passed down through the generations in my family. I remember my father painstakingly going through each song, pointing out certain licks that sent him soaring and recounting the memories each song invoked along the way. It was an aural history. Each song and each tape was a little piece of his past, his emotions, himself. When it was often hard to get through that tough outer shell, those mix-tape sessions created a viewing window. When he gave you a mix tape, you knew he had spent at least a couple of hours on it; it was the nature of the beast. That's a couple of hours in which you could be certain he had you in mind. And sure, with CD burners it takes less time, but do we ever do anything truly worthwhile in the extra time we save? I say we've lost more than we've gained. Mr. Keller, I am still clinging to my tape deck; I'd be honored if you sent one of your cherished mixes my way -- it would have a good home. Pretty sad times indeed when a 19-year-old is already so nostalgic.

-- Molly Fitzpatrick

If you want to publish a eulogy to the dying arts of yesteryear, find someone who will do it without sounding whiny -- and without overlooking the unique possibilities that new technologies offer.

A Floridian I know exclusively via online acquaintance (name withheld as he is a Clear Channel employee) is also a devotee of the fine art of the mix. He has collected a database of music so massive that even the Library of Congress would be jealous. When he builds a mix, he decides on a theme, follows a set of rules very similar to those stated by Joel Keller, and starts click and dragging the playlist into existence.

He then imports the playlist into mixing software, where he carefully selects his own start and end points for each piece, balances the levels, ping-pongs the stereo, adds backbeats to cover the cross-faded transitions, matches tempos, inserts seemingly random audio snippets (all the more intentionally selected to create that impression) to change the meaning of the music to his whim, and otherwise massages it into a new whole entirely his own. He then burns his opus to a CD as a single track, or exports an 80-minute MP3.

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The entire process takes about as long, is at least as painstaking, and results in a work of beauty as poignant as the mix tape à la Keller. It has the added benefit of including effects and a level of professional polish that most audiophiles (or at least the ones with equipment budgets of less than the cost of a used Toyota) could only dream of even five years ago. And no one can set the playlist to shuffle without seriously deconstructing the work on their own, a process which would (one supposes) be undertaken only by those with an equal love of the final product.

And this is only the beginning. An exclusively Internet phenomenon is the mash-up, perhaps the ultimate mix, in which devotees layer the lyrics from artist A against the music of artist B. Not 24 hours after Dean's apocalyptic concession speech, his words had been thrown against techno break beats by GarageBand users the Internet over. By all indications, the fine art of the mix is alive and well; it has simply evolved to better fit the new landscape.

Technology has not rendered mixing obsolete, it has simply empowered more people to be lazy. If Keller wishes to be lazy, that's certainly his prerogative. He should be very clear, however, that it is a choice, not an unavoidable effect of Moore's law.

-- Rich Pizor

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When I was in college in the '80s, I was a radio DJ. I taped my shows as I did them, so I could enjoy later. I often gave the tapes to friends from home. Without a comparable radio station where they lived, my tapes gave them a chance to hear artists that they normally wouldn't.

About five years ago, I was one of the first of my friends to get high-speed Internet access. I downloaded music, mostly MP3 singles from record label and promotional sites. I'd arrange my favorite songs onto CDs so I could listen to them at work. I even created covers and track listings. I then gave copies of these CDs to friends, most of whom didn't have broadband but might enjoy some of the artists I found. After a while, these CDs were pretty popular -- friends would ask me when I'd come out with a new one. I felt like I was back programming a show, picking out my favorite tracks and putting them in order.

Unfortunately, the CDs proved to be more short-lived than my cassettes from college. Most of the CDRs they're on are now unplayable.

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-- Jack McHale

In response to Joel Keller's lament about mix tapes: Sorry, but Andrew Leonard is right. "With the annoying obstacles posed by archaic technologies removed, I have more time to pay attention to what really counts: the music."

I recently created a two-disc mix CD as a Christmas present for some friends and the process was very much akin to the way Keller described laboring for his tapes of yore. I sat in front of my PC with a beverage and spent a couple of hours (actually, days!) finding just the right combination of songs to put on my mix.

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In other words, just because I can put together a mix CD very quickly, doesn't mean that I have to.

The argument that Keller makes is that cheaper and more widely available technology equates to a flood of lower-quality product. This argument is heard in any number of subcultures where there exists a small group of people who are "experts" or "artists" because they have the willingness, time or money to learn complicated and cumbersome technologies. Professional studio recording is a great example. Now that home recording gear has been priced within the budget of any number of amateurs, the pros are screaming, "These dilettantes are diluting our quality products with crap -- in 10 years all recordings will suck!" But I think that deep down they just feel resentful that a 16-year-old with a PC can now do what it took them 10 years and $50K to learn. Just another iteration of the "high art vs. low art" discourse.

(This e-mail was written by Auto-Letter-to-the-Editor software, which creates a response to an online article based on keywords in the article).

-- Kayvaan Ghassemieh

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Joel Keller's article was dead on. The making of the mix tape is one of life's great joys, and I for one have not relinquished the task.

I am sticking with the "cumbersome" Walkman for my gym workouts, not only because I also use it to listen to audio books from the library, but because (as Keller points out) no MP3 is ever going to provide me with that perfectly matched batch of tunes.

Long live the cheap, tendency-to-get-tangled, 90-minute cassette tape!

-- Stephanie Schwartz

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Reading Joel Keller's article, I felt really bad for the man. I also used to slave in front of the tape deck for hours, first with vinyl records, then with CDs, in an attempt to make the perfect compilation for whoever was the lucky recipient. However, instead of disliking the computer CD compilation process, I've found that it frees me creatively.

No longer do I have to wrestle with my horrible reflexes, never knowing if I restarted the tape deck in time. I never again have to obsess over how to create the perfect amount of time in between cuts. I can also digitally erase any defects that exist in the source music, design and create beautiful cover art, labels and package inserts, and equalize the volume and tone to my liking. I make a "best of" CD at Christmas every year and my friends and family are always waiting in eager anticipation to see what I've included and how the songs are arranged. Listening to the songs all the way through is still crucial, whether the technology demands it or not.

If Mr. Keller is finding his creativity stifled by the use of computers to create, perhaps the problem isn't in the PC. He appears to be complaining that this technology, which in my opinion has made me far more creative in my mix tapes (OK, CDs), has made him lazy. That can hardly be blamed on the computer, now can it?

-- Susan Gorski

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My interest in music has waned in recent years, and considering I was a guitar major and a rabid music snob in my youth, that's no small thing. I have been blaming it on old age, the poor quality of today's music, but maybe it's due to the demise of the tape cassette. Like the author of this article, I spent hours, days even, perfecting the mix tape. Sometimes I'd even have to go back and edit if the order or selection didn't work. I miss the mix tape, and though I love my iPod it's just not the same.

And there's one more point you could make: The tape limited you to 60 or 90 minutes; in comparison, the MP3 players seem to have a nearly infinite capacity. True art blooms under limitations. The 45 minutes per side forced you to hone your skills and your taste. That seems lost as well now that the possibilities seem sadly endless.

-- Eric Keller

Thank you, Joel Keller, for your ode to the mix tape. I'm one of the few dedicated cassette listeners left, I fear, and I too mourn the tape's demise heavily. In my college years, my friends and I perfected the art of the mix tape to the point where tapes moved beyond musical compilations and became currency and a form of communication. We had rules, but of course rules are meant to be broken. We noted each other's control of musical flow, the use of random bits of comedy weirdness to keep the proceedings lively, and how close we could get to using the entire tape without cutting off any songs or making a choppy transition. We had special mix-tape songs we saved for the perfect tape. There was an art to it that showed a genuine investment in the music and, perhaps even more importantly, an investment in the presentation of music. As you so brilliantly noted, all that is lost with a CD. You spend two minutes creating a playlist, click "burn," and you're done. Then you pop in the CD, listen for 10 minutes, and fall asleep.

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I'm also a DJ, and I resent having to put my mixes on CDs if I want anybody to buy them. The move to CD has hurt the mix-tape game greatly. The cassette tape is so much more up to the mix-tape task than a CD. You record in two 30- (or 45-) minute segments, which allows you to set up themes, opposites, questions and answers, you name it. I used to make mixes to fit on a 60-minute tape, which I would then burn to CD. Now that tapes are dead to the public, I only make CDs. I try my best to approximate the cassette-mix experience on CDs, but it's just not the same.

But I'll be damned if I give up my tapes. I never leave the house without my Walkman. I don't own an iPod, nor do I want one. I don't even own a CD player, save my computer's CD-ROM. Tapes were and are the perfect format for me, and when it comes to making mixes, the CD can't hold a candle to the cassette. I still have a few friends who listen to tapes. I still make tapes for them when I can. I've gotta keep my mix-tape chops up. And I still listen to the tapes my friends gave me and smile. No radio programmer -- much less an iPod on "shuffle" -- can even come close to those tapes.

-- Pete Babb

After reading Joel Keller's article I too find myself longing for the days when every moment of music on the tapes I made served a specific purpose; I felt I was putting out genuine articles of self-expression. When I make CDs for people now, I hardly even concern myself with the order in which I place the songs because I know friends will probably just rip the CDs and add them to their libraries in pieces.

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But I am not in mourning, because technology has invented a whole new hobby for me. Downloading music, be it illegally, gives me an even deeper feeling of connection with the music I choose to listen to now. Downloading music is an act that requires as much attention to detail and sustained concentration as making a mix tape. Managing downloads, ensuring each file is of high quality, and then deciding whether or not a new song, artist, or album will enter my song queue gives me a real sense of ownership of the music (ironic, since legally I don't own it). Knowing that I have almost any artist available to me means that I have spent more time creating and deciding my musical tastes and finding artists that match them. I feel like I am engaging the music I listen to more actively than I ever had, even when I was making mix tapes.

I am not trying to advocate or justify file sharing here. This has just been my experience. Wasn't making a mix tape just a different way of "file sharing" anyway?

-- Patrick Ripton

Joel Keller's article was right on target. Not only would my friends and I make mix tapes for each other, but occasionally we would work together on one. Back in 1989 my friend Scott and I would hang out in his room for hours -- listening to music, watching "Star Wars" or some rented videos. Scott could make the best mix tapes because he had his VCR hooked up to his stereo. Between songs he'd put snippets of dialogue from movies and TV shows. We made a mix tape for my girlfriend because she enjoyed the tapes he had made for me. We had so much fun making that tape! We could also record thorough a mic, so we did little comedy skits or just talked between some of the songs. I can't help but smile thinking about it.

I broke up with my girlfriend (then wanted her back -- but it was too late), but I made a copy of that mix tape while we were still together. After the pain had gone, the joy of making that tape came shining through my stereo speakers.

I haven't listened to that tape in years. It's in a drawer across the room somewhere, buried beneath other memories. I do the whole MP3/iTunes/iPod thing now. I still make mix CDs for people; I even keep the playlists in iTunes and my iPod and when I play back the "mix" I made, I do think of the person I made it for.

But Joel's right. It's not the same. It's worse in some ways, better in others. But it can't beat an evening with Scott, dancing to "Bust a Move" and doing an impromptu rendition of the theme from "The Monkees" (which, to this day, I swear seemed like a good idea at the time).

The mix tape is dead. Long live the mix tape.

-- Joseph Prisco


Salon Staff

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