Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Art of the Mix Tape

If you would have asked me a few years ago whether I considered making mix tapes a legitimate hobby, I would have said no. Listening to music, maybe. Making a mix tape? Isn't that something you only do once or twice? Surely it doesn't constitute a full-time hobby.

How wrong I was.

I credit my good friend Emily with introducing me to the art of the mix tape. Emily and I met when I moved to a new town and started going to concerts. During the course of our spending time together, she kept mentioning bands that I'd never heard of. Finally, after the third or fourth time she had asked if I knew about a certain artist and I'd said no, she shook her head and pursed her lips. "I'm making you a mix tape," she said.

Enter mix tape style number one: The introductory mix tape.

Emily's tape, which was carefully labeled with the artist that performed each song and the album it was from, split my musical world wide open. From the bands that she introduced me to, I was led to certain labels I had never heard of, and those labels opened me up to even more bands and artists. In a short amount of time, I was mentioning bands that SHE had never heard of. Thus my obsession with mix tapes had begun.

Those who consider making mix tapes a hobby are very specific about the rules. First of all, a mix tape is not the same thing as a mix CD. While mix CDs are certainly allowed- and sometimes unavoidable, particularly when the recipient doesn't have a tape player- mix tapes are much better because of the fact that you can't make them with a computer. You're required to sit in front of your stereo with a stack of tapes and CDs and a ballpoint pen and paper, marking down each song as it finishes and leaping up to run to the stereo and stop the tape for just the right amount of transition time. Making a mix tape requires a commitment of several hours and a certain amount of artistic patience.

Then, of course, there's the cover art. Only the inexperienced give mix tapes with blank covers or, worse, with simply the track listing written on the insert. Experienced mixsters create intricate cover art from pages cut from magazines, old Polaroid photos, or even (on a particularly emo mix I received once) a row of Band-Aids stuck together. The cover art says a great deal about how much effort was put into the mix and what type of message it's supposed to convey.

And that brings me to the next important point about the hobby of making mix tapes: The messages. Aside from the aforementioned introductory mix tape, there are an entire host of reasons why you make tapes. If you're making one for yourself, it should ideally be for a certain purpose; ie. "Songs for the Drive to South Dakota," or "My After-Work Blasting the Car Stereo Tape." Making tapes for yourself is a great way to consolidate all of your favorite 'mood' songs into one place, making it easy to create a certain feeling at any time just by popping in the tape.

Making mix tapes for other people is a whole different story. The most common form is, of course, the girl-to-boy or boy-to-girl mix tape. These tapes are generally full of songs with underlying meaning that hints at the as-yet unspoken feelings in the relationship. Typically, the songs will go on for both sides talking about feeling misunderstood, or alone, or searching for love; then the last song will be a loud confession of the giver's feelings, and then the tape should cut off abruptly into hissing silence.

The recipient's response is important. The best possible response is a mix tape in return that confesses feelings equally difficult to speak. The worst response? "It was OK. I played it once or twice."

Regardless of why you feel like making a mix tape, you may be surprised to learn that it does indeed count as a hobby- and an enthralling one at that. Spending hours in front of the stereo mixing and matching your favorite songs into a cohesive whole will capture your attention like nothing else ever can. Get a bottle of wine or a few cigarettes, stay up extra-late with the volume down low, and start mixing. You'll never want to stop.
-by bjp

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