And there’s nothing worse than to make the wrong choice….
But then I find just the right thing…
Record shop owner and list-obsessed misanthrope Rob Fleming, the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, claims that “a good compiliation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do.”
“Making a tape is like writing a letter” he muses. And, just like writing a letter, there are subtle but important rules to the format; important ways to structure and organise the material within to make sure it hits the right notes. “You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention… and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch… and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs, and … oh, there are loads of rules.”
Perhaps you’re more familiar with this mixtape manifesto coming from the film version’s American Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack.)
Transatlantic Rob’s take is that “you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel – this is a delicate thing.”
So the rules are there to guide the mixtape compiler through this delicate process.
But are there really rules?
Is this just another example of Rob and his friends’/employees’ snobbish hipster attitude to what is and is not cool?
Surely the thing that dictates what you put on a tape is your idea of what the intended recipient might like?
Not to mention that making a tape is an act of curation: a type of collage, mosaic, bricolage. Sure, you’re (usually, anyway) not making the music yourself. But you’re making the links between the distinct pieces. It’s a creative act.
And since when has creativity had rules?
As the graphic designer Anthony Burrill writes in his (really rather lovely) book Work Hard & Be Nice to People:
“Why are we constrained by rules that other people invented? I’m not talking about rules like, ‘don’t walk on railway lines’. I’m thinking about boring rules that prevent you from trying new ideas.”
And the thing is, I don’t think Rob’s rules are even that good. He has a point when it comes to paying attention to the flow and momentum of a tape. But one of book Rob’s rules is:
“you can’t have black music and white music together, unless the white music sounds like black music”
For the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, I do not endorse apartheid, Jim-Crow segregationist mixtapes.
Don’t even start me on the concept of “black music” and “white music.” Every folk, country, & rock’n’roll record ever made – all genres that it’s fair to assume that Rob is referring to under the category of “white music” – either owe a huge amount of inspiration and heritage to, or were ripped off wholesale from, talented Black originators. Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented rock’n’roll, not Elvis Presley.
A good mixtape, in my opinion, should feel like a guided tour through someone else’s record collection. Like someone has passed you a set of headphones, beaming “you need to hear this.”
There’s very little point in making someone a tape of music they already know. So a good mixtape should also introduce the listener to new artists and styles. Maybe even broaden their horizons a little. It shouldn’t be constrained by genre or autobiographical details of the musicians.
Really interesting things can happen when you combine two things that may at first seem disparate.
Truly groundbreaking djs and producers like DJ Shadow create records full of incredible soundscapes, composed from samples and ‘found’ snippets from sources that no one else would ever think to connect. They are bricoleurs – creating something original from stray scraps.
Of course, there are very few amongst us who have the skill, patience, and encyclopaedic, crate-digging musical vocabulary to create a mixtape that sounds like Entroducing or The Private Press. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take inspiration from them.
Whenever I make a mix or a playlist (which is pretty much constantly) I have a certain framework I follow.
Particularly when I’m making the playlists that accompany these 52 Records pieces here on Typo Negative.
They’re not rules. More like guidelines.
And here they are:
In the digital age, we’re not as constrained by the limitations of our medium. Still, though, I try to keep these playlists as close as possible to one hour and thirty minutes long. That’s the standard capacity of the cassette tapes I used to play around with and also, I think, is the optimal amount of time for someone to listen and engage with new music. For most pop music-centric lists, this rounds out somewhere between 20 and 30 songs.
Similarly, I try to replicate the cassette tape format by building in a natural break at the 45 minute, halfway mark. A moment of calm as the mix is turned over to side B. I’m not sure that anyone else even notices this, but some rituals you have to do just for you.
If you want to hold the listener’s attention, you have to carefully consider how each track flows into the next. Congruity is generally the aim here, with the tempo and key at the end of a track roughly corresponding to the start of the next track. But sometimes it’s good to throw in a jarring kick, too: a jagged, punky howl to follow on from a long instrumental outro.
This means a lot of juggling songs up and down the track listing, scrubbing through to the closing 10 seconds over and over again to make sure it all lines up. Unless you live alone, do this wearing headphones. Your co-habitors will thank you for it.
High Fidelity‘s rules on flow are a little constrictive for my tastes, but the general point stands. Just like in music itself, and indeed writing, you build rhythm through variance, not repetition. Though there are exceptions, generally speaking a tape with non-stop, high-energy, pumped-up jams gets exhausting after a while. Too far the other way it can become dirge-y. Keep an eye on it and make sure you’re mixing it up (unless you have a damn good reason not to).
We’re really entering nerd territory now, people. You might just want to make a nice mix full of music you like. But I get a kick out of making sure the playlists that accompany these posts are thematically linked. I pick songs with titles, lyrics or ideas which relate, in some way, to the topic at hand. Beyond just being a self-indulgent exercise in aesthetics (which, let’s be clear, it absolutely is), this can bring together some really interesting combinations. I think it makes for better mixtapes.
This is probably the closest thing to a hard and fast rule I have: none of the playlists that accompany these posts will ever be comprised of music entirely made by men, or entirely made by white people.
History has shown that, despite the abundant musical talent in people of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and nationality, the western canon (particularly in music from before the 1970s) has a bias that skews white and male. It’s a small thing, in the grand scheme of it all, but as responsible listeners, I think we should be actively trying to undo this bias. If you’re making a tape or playlist that you want to share with someone, I urge you to do the same.
This is easy to do, by the way, because women and people of colour are responsible for creating some of the greatest music ever committed to tape.
Of course, not every mixtape is made for romantic reasons. But plenty of them are.
So, if you’re attempting to woo someone with tunes, a final piece of advice from me. And, incidentally, the more mature version of Rob we know by the end of High Fidelity:
Don’t get hung up on trying to demonstrate how cool and obscure your taste is. Just try and fill the tape with things you think the person will like. Think about their favourite song or artist, and then start working through the songs and artists that you associate with them.
If you don’t know their favourite songs, find out.
If they don’t like music… then why are you making them a tape? (And, to be honest, why would you want to be with them anyway?)
Making a mixtape is just like a good piece of copywriting:
You need to remember your audience.
There are a lot of rules.
You can find themed mixtapes/playlists under every post in my 52 records series. Happy listening.