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Holiday Guide Feature

Mix Master

Making a Music Mix in The Digital Age

Alex Fine

Holiday Guide 2008

Present Tense City Paper's 2008 Holiday Guide

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By Michael Byrne | Posted 11/19/2008

The personalized music mix should be dead. Digital music, starting with CDs, shoved a splintery spear through its chest and, a couple decades later, music on the interwebs stepped on its throat. Hate to get all "back in the day" but, well, back in the day, the mix was how many of us found and collected a great deal of our music; mixtapes traded among friends could have as much impact as the radio. In fact, if you're over the age of, say, 25, maybe one of the first hard copies of music you owned was a cassette tape full of favorite songs dubbed, crudely, from the radio. Mine came mostly from 102.7 Z Rock in Detroit--the first track on it was Metallica's "Seek and Destroy." I think it had Styx's "Renegade" on there, too. (I'm proud to say my taste in music has gotten neither better nor worse since I was in elementary school, and sad to say Z-Rock went to absolute shit sometime during middle school.)

Sharing, and with it, gifting music has changed a lot in the 20-odd-year interim, of course. Just the word "sharing" in the internet age--insofar as the word now means unlimited distribution to whomever, wherever--is a word as dirty as trespassing or, hell, kidnapping. Sure, there are always albums to gift, but the real world value of albums, with the exception of vinyl records, financially and sentimentally is practically nil--you don't have to be too savvy, or young to know that it's all out there floating and very free. And consider, too, that many of us are walking around with 60 GB of music in our pockets. Just how are you supposed to give music to someone who already has a Sound Garden's worth of songs in their hard drive?

The upshot is that, even though most folks have long since dumped their tape recorders (leaving a dearth of them in thrift stores for almost-free, if you're looking to go retro), the personalized mix is all the more important now if sharing music is to mean something other than distributing music.

And, of course, the two words are already conflated in the eyes of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which in addition to chasing file sharers from across the land, shut down the web site, a web platform that allowed users to easily, and without cost, upload digital songs onto individual web pages that functioned as online mixtapes. Sharing was as easy as sending someone a link and since the service wasn't paying royalties for the songs it streamed, it was also in copyright violation. Sharing wasn't just distributing, it was "stealing." Last September, the site announced that its incarnation as a virtual mixtape platform was dead.

Credit Muxtape, at the very least, with making us think about making personalized mixes again. Not that we ever forgot about it, especially those of us that fall in the general music-obsessive category that includes record store clerks, collectors, and music journalists, but suddenly everyone had a Muxtape. For a minute there, you couldn't find an internet message board that didn't have a "post your Muxtape!" thread somewhere near the top. By the end of its first month in existence, Muxtape has nearly 100,000 users.

In Muxtape's stead arrived Favtape, a similar site that appears to be operating in-bounds in terms of copyright. Rather than having users upload songs, songs procured from anywhere, including your hard drive, Favtape has you search its database, or bring in songs that you've "favorited" from a account. ( is a sort of customizable internet radio/recommendation/social networking site.) Quick searches for two songs that would likely find their way onto any mix I'd be making this week in mid-November, the Microphones' "Map" and the Mekons' "Darkness and Doubt," came up empty. So, automatically, fuck that. A personal mix is personal and selecting from a pre-selected copyright cleared stockpile is not.

You can also try something called OpenTape, an open-source alternative that's considerably more complicated, but isn't likely to get shuttered any time soon. Rather than host digital music files on its web site, OpenTape lets you use your own (assuming you have one), putting the copyright infringement risk on you.

Somewhere in between OpenTape and FavTape lies, a web mixtape platform that is about as close you can come to Muxtape without using your own web server, a la OpenTape. Unlike Muxtape, however, 8track doesn't allow jumping back and forth between tracks. Like a radio broadcast or good ol' fashioned plastic cassette, you have to listen to it front to back. And that's the loophole that allows it to operate legally--the web site pays broadcast royalties but isn't technically distributing individual songs (the "stealing" part). It's a nice platform in its simplicity, but relatively new and things involving the web and recorded music have a way of going from legal to illegal as the RIAA finds shrewder lawyers.

Consider it a "best case" until we eventually run the RIAA back into the sea. And, besides, you don't need to do anything fancy to listen to one--just go to the web address and that's it. No special player is required. (Please note the best best case still remains an actual physical tape, hiss, uneven transitions, weak fidelity and all.)

So, with the technical business out of the way, you have the really hard part, actually selecting and ordering a mix. The process is an art form, a next level of communication. And, of course, its loving latter-day sketch came a while back in the charming record-store nerd document High Fidelity, based on Nick Hornby's novel. "To me, making a tape is like writing a letter," Rob Gordon, the film's lovelorn record-store owner protagonist muses. "There's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do."

There are no rules to it, maybe just best practices. And anyone that's ever made one will have their very own set. "You've got to kick it off with a killer, then take it up a notch," Rob adds. "But you don't want to blow your load, so you cool it off a notch." (This is all presuming your mix recipient will be a good sport and play your "tape" in its preferred order rather than skipping around.)

Like Rob says, pace yourself. Like a good DJ, don't blow them away with hot song after hot song. Give them something new, something to think about. Make them rewind ("rewind"). For that matter, don't try to out-nerd anyone--if you feel compelled to fill your tape with basement-brewed minimal techno, take a deep breath, walk around the block, maybe listen to the radio for a minute. But, by the same token, if you're a pretentious asshole--not that minimal techno heads are pretentious, or assholes--maybe your mixtape is a chance to come clean. On a similar note, avoid long jams--they'll take over, fuck up your flow. Don't forget that flow is what makes a mix a mix and not a pot of songs. If selection is one dimension of a mix's personality, then sequence is the second.

But, that's all secondary--again, as Rob says, this is a letter. Or maybe it's even more than that--a conversation. You're communicating some of yourself, but you're also speaking the language of the tape's recipient, speaking in the proverbial "us." (Of course with a public web address, those recipients theoretically stretch to infinity.) Make it count.

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Holiday Guide Feature archives

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Stuffed (11/18/2009)
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford

More from Michael Byrne

In a Lonely Place (8/4/2010)
Montreal's Arcade Fire shows its American roots on new album

The Short List (8/4/2010)

Soft Core (7/28/2010)
A defense of a different live music experience

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