The return of the mixtape king

transparent cassette tape on yellow background Photo by Stas Knop on

I was rummaging around in our loft the other day when I discovered a box of old audio cassette mixtapes. I’d forgotten I’d made many of these, but it made for a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Music is a big part of my life – and a big part of our children’s lives too. So many of my strongest memories come with their own musical soundtrack. In many cases, events are inextricably linked with particular songs. And conversely, certain songs (or collections of songs) are capable of instantly transporting me back in time.

Several of the tapes date back to when Heather and I first got together. Just reading the carefully handwritten track listings immediately brought 30-year old memories flooding back. Trips to the local video rental store (now that belies our age!), bowling, games of Scrabble and a diet of frozen pizzas, Wotsits and cans of Coke. Happy days.

Music continues to be important even in my 50s. It provides common ground for bonding with the kids – as much as they complain about my liking for 80s stations. We listen to Popmaster together on Radio 2. All three of them have a good ear for music of all eras. Kara in particular has a knack of instantly recognising any song she has heard before. Although often her frame of reference is that she has heard it on Strictly or The Masked Singer, or seen it feature in a film.

We even create playlists together and occasionally share them. But, for all the ease and convenience of curating digital playlists, I do miss the old-fashioned mixtape.

The lost art of the mixtape

There was an art to putting together a good mixtape. Songs on a compilation needed something in common. It could be something as simple as a specific year or time period. Or perhaps a particular artist or genre. Often the best mixtapes had an unusual theme which brought together unexpected and interesting contrasts that made them distinctly different to a traditional album. Cover versions. Debut songs. Disco classics. One-hit wonders. And so on.

The order in which you presented your chosen songs mattered too, just as concert setlists are carefully planned. You might kick off with a couple of up-tempo hits to get things going, but you wouldn’t put five in a row. You’d place ballads strategically to manage changes of pace. The same with more off-beat or obscure selections. In the days when we still recorded mixtapes on actual cassettes, you would also take care to minimise the empty space left at the end of side one so that, when played on a two-way deck, you wouldn’t leave a long gap before the player flipped over to side two.

A good mixtape maker would weigh up all these factors to produce a compilation that ebbed and flowed pleasingly between faster and slower songs, sprinkled in a few surprises among the required quota of mainstream hits and optimised the available space on the tape. And they would make sure they got this right first time because you couldn’t easily change the order of tracks without rerecording multiple songs.

Mixtapes were carefully curated labours of love. They took effort, not least because you needed to buy/borrow all the originals to copy. And as they were created in real-time, they took serious amounts of time: two hours or more.

I guess that’s why compilations such as the long-running NOW That’s What I Call Music series were so popular, because they took all the effort and expense out of it. But it wasn’t the same. Any compilation included several naff tracks in amongst all the big hits. And they lacked the personal touch of one that had been hand-made.

From mixtapes to playlists

These days, everything is easy. Download the songs you want, create a playlist, then add, delete or reorder your tracks as much as you like. Or take the even easier route and download a playlist that someone else has published on Spotify or Apple Music.

It’s a hell of a lot more convenient than spending hours faffing around with a tape-to-tape or CD-to-tape recorder (or, if you were really old-school, taping directly from the radio). You can compile a playlist in minutes, and you don’t have to worry about running out of space. I have several sprawling playlists with running times of six hours or more.

But, because it is so easy, the art of planning a mixtape has been lost somewhat. Sharing a playlist isn’t as meaningful as handing over a physical cassette to someone.

Maintaining memories

The age of making physical mixtapes has long since given way to its digital equivalent. We’re never going back. But I haven’t lost that love of creating the perfect compilation.

I have a lot of playlists. Scrolling down my phone, I can count over 200. Some are curated to specific themes or years. (I’ve just finished my Glastonbury 2022 playlist.) Others are deliberately more esoteric. (For instance, I have a playlist called ‘Uncovered’ made up of the less famous originals of well-known cover versions.) And some – like my old cassette mixtapes – evoke very specific memories. (We traditionally do an annual summer holiday family playlist where everyone contributes a personal selection of songs.)

So I guess the old mixtape king never really went away. But I adapted as the tech evolved, and playlists now are more than just a convenient way of organising my music. They’re a window into my memories, not just for myself but hopefully for the kids as well.