The High Fidelity television series debuted this week on Hulu. And it also occurred to me that we just passed Valentine’s Day. So with the idea of music and its connection to all sorts of relationships as expressed in the novel/ film/ now-TV show-along with the usual VDay debate of making something over buying something and it’s relative value vs its meaning-had me thinking about the value of mixtapes in the playlist world. Because me.
For the record, I’m not talking about the burned CD’s / demo tapes someone occasionally tries to sell you in the parking deck. That’s an artist hustle to respect in most cases, and you do have to start somewhere. Not today, though.
For the purposes of this discussion, we’re talking mixtapes as a curated playlist culled from whatever your various sources happened to have been and then placed on a cassette. These cassettes were then passed along to those you deemed worthy of the object. The audience was limited to the tapes you gave out. And those who were given one were usually the intended audience. Made for them.
If you are of a certain age, this was a ritual. A well thought out mix tape took a while to sequence, source, and record. The space limitations of a cassette led to certain considerations.
What do you cut? What do you keep? Is the first song on the second side of the tape a pause (which lets you pick right up from the pace and theme from the end of the first) or a break in the narrative (which would allow another build up to something along the same lines)? Is the audio clip between the fourth and fifth song was really necessary, or is it just too clever?
High Fidelity, the novel- and to some extent, the 2000 John Cusack film- exists in the era where the mixtape was still very much a physical object. The 00’s concession was a burned CD. The thought still counted, though- it was a thing you made with a considered intent.
In contrast, modern playlists don’t always carry the same function. Some playlists act as shortcuts or filters in your library. For example, you may not want plaintive ballads during your work out, or for the Offspring to come up when you want to hear nothing but the 80’s. Playlists can exist outside of music you actually own. Playlists can generate themselves based on rules and definitions you can set. Playlists can represent a sampling of your tastes based on things you noted you’ve liked or rated. But not you, really-because you can fib about liking Bjork more than you actually do. Because we all have at some time or another.
Now before you get the idea I’m the old guy wanting the millennials off my lawn, and am somehow setting up the thesis of my upcoming Black Mirror script (which I’m also not denying I’m not developing separately, because why wouldn’t you)- you should know that I love that technology has enabled this shit. I grew up with WKRP and MTV and absolutely wanted to be a DJ / VJ. I wanted to talk about music and share new things or oddities that I found in a crate. While I never got there as a job, the tech allows me to do it regardless in a way that feels, well, authentically me and is less likely to be ended by my cancellation (oh, noting that for the Black Mirror script-that’s just too good). You can share playlists, which is great for sharing over distance or a mass number of folk. I like this feature and use it a lot to broadcast and share things I find (::ahem:: randomizer & The Playlist). Saves a lot on mailing, shipping, and megaphone batteries. Not to mention, the neighbors are happier with the lower noise levels…
The problem is even if you do curate by ear, it’s hard to tell hand-picked playlists from those generated by algorithm because most services don’t offer the ability to notate it and offer it as a separate search. Part of the joy of getting mixtapes was the feeling that even if you knew the tape may be have been duplicated and given to 10 other people- you were one of those ten people. And it was still some effort to making copies of tapes. No matter how much thought I put into a playlist I share on Twitter- it’s very possible someone will think I’m just another bot or a brand promotion. If it’s seen at all. That’s the key difference between the old mixtape and the modern playlist- for all the work, for all the consideration, the midnight (or long past midnight) headphone sessions- it’s possible for the playlist to get missed in all the other digital white noise.
The physical object-the tape or CD- had to be picked up and looked at. Maybe the title made you curious, or there was a track on the hand written sleeve that caught your interest (possibly because the short space on the cassette sleeves necessitated the tiny, frantic handwriting so as to be illegible, but still…).
But is there a way within the technology to recapture that feeling of the mixtape that was made for you? And would anyone be able to find it in the haystack? Well, maybe.
Technology refines over time. Polygons in games become realistic objects with their own weight and gravity. Bits become gbs. iTunes comes along, gets bloated, and then eventually killed. On the Mac.
When broadcast radio went automated and curated by focus groups- people fled for music on their own devices and the more supposedly hand curated Satellite Radio. People like a mixture- tech that feels hand made. Searches can be refined, weights and separate categories can be added and programmed in if there’s ample demand for it.
Or maybe playlists can be refined by clever titles and tiny print. I mean it worked before. Like the store-bought valentines and the boxed candy, maybe it’s all enough if the meaning’s there.