I read a Twitter thread recently about the preferred format for mix “tapes” nowadays. CDs are still popular, although Spotify links are catching up. A few people compile them as zip files or use USB drives. I would like to think there are some old geezers out there who still use tape; perhaps they aren’t connected to the Internet to say so.
I have written here before about the 8-track recorder I bought in high school, so the first mix tapes I ever made were in that format. When I got to college, I made a few party mixes on reel tapes in the production rooms of radio stations. I graduated to cassettes shortly after I graduated from college, and they were my medium of choice for car tapes until the early 00s, when I got a CD burner. But I kept playing tapes until 2012, when the car with the tape deck went to the big salvage yard in the sky.
I burned a CD just this morning, some tunes for a trip we’re getting ready to take. I burn as MP3s, which means a single CD can hold several hours of music. (Burning standard CD files limits a disc to 80 minutes.) As I was selecting tunes for the CD, I kept thinking, “What else could I put on here? There’s certainly room for more.” If I were putting them into a zip file or USB drive, there would be even more room. A Spotify playlist is theoretically limitless.
That feels like it could be a problem.
A mix begins with a goal. What do I want this mix to do? If you’re sending one to a girl (and I am guessing that many of the male geeks reading this post have done it, or considered it), you want to express yourself, tell her who you are, and create a mood. For a road trip, you want to create a different mood, one that enhances the experience of travel in whatever way you choose. Or maybe you’re making a mix for your own amusement (“the greatest hits by artists whose names begin with A”), or on a particular theme (“best party hits from college”). What belongs, or best fits the theme?
More importantly, what doesn’t? A C-90 cassette or an 80-minute blank CD requires you to make choices. Does this song contribute to the mood, or the theme? Is it better for that purpose than some other song I am considering? I’d argue that a cassette or CD mix you make for somebody will say more about you as a person than a mix you send as a Spotify list because of the paring and tweaking you have to do to make it right within a physical limit. It also says something about how you regard the person you’re giving it to. You care enough to spend real time, effort, and thought on them. You don’t just browse a list and hit “add” a few times.
Years ago, I heard a party DJ say something similar. He wondered whether there’s really an advantage in being able to take thousands of songs to a party digitally instead being confined to what fits in a crate of vinyl or CDs. As in making a mix, choices are necessary. Is this a record I need, one I can’t imagine the party without? If so, it goes in the crate. If not, it can stay home. True, the DJ with 10,000 songs is likely to have more latitude on those occasions when it’s helpful, or be better able to play some guest’s request, but does that automatically mean he’ll provide a better party in the long run than the DJ who’s crated up a couple of hundred tried-and-true dance floor monsters?
Our culture frowns upon limits. We equate freedom with having whatever we want, as much as we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. But “unlimited” is not automatically better. For an artist of the mix, acceptance of limits can enhance the work.