A mixtape, which usually reflects the musical tastes of its compiler, can range from a casually selected list of favorite songs, to a conceptual mix of songs linked by a theme or mood, to a highly personal statement tailored to the tape's intended recipient. Essayist Geoffrey O'Brien has called the personal mix tape "the most widely practiced American art form", and many mix tape enthusiasts believe that by carefully selecting and ordering the tracks in a mix, an artistic statement can be created that is greater than the sum of its individual songs.
With the advent of affordable, consumer-level digital audio, creating and distributing mixes in the form of compact disc or MP3 playlists has become the contemporary method of choice, but the term mix tape is still commonly used, even for mixes in different media (for example, CD, MP3, MiniDisc, audio cassette 8 track). Video mixtapes have emerged as well.
The most common early mix tapes were bootleg 8 track tapes that were sold at flea markets and truck stops in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, with names like "Super 73", "Country Chart Toppers" or "Top Pops 1977".
Homemade mix tapes became common in the 1980s. Although the compact audio cassette by Philips appeared at the 1963 Berlin Radio Show, the sound quality of cassettes was not good enough to be seriously considered for music recording until further advances in tape formulations, including the advent of chrome and metal tape. Before the introduction of the audio cassette, the creation of a pop music compilation required specialized or cumbersome equipment, such as a reel-to-reel or 8 track recorder, that was often inaccessible to the casual music fan. As cassette tapes and recorders grew in popularity and portability, these technological hurdles were lowered to the point where the only resources required to create a mix were a handful of cassettes and a cassette recorder connected to a source of prerecorded music, such as a radio or LP player. The 8-track tape cartridge was more popular for music recording during much of the 1960s, as the cassette was originally only mono and intended for vocal recordings only, such as in office dictation machines. But improvements in fidelity finally allowed the cassette to become a major player. The ready availability of the cassette and higher quality home recording decks to serve the home casual user allowed the cassette to become the dominant tape format, to the point that the 8 track tape nearly disappeared shortly after the turn of the 1980s. The growth of the mixtape was also encouraged by improved quality and increased popularity of audio cassette players in car entertainment systems, and by the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979.
A distinction should be drawn between a private mixtape, which is usually intended for a specific listener or private social event, and a public mixtape, or "party tape", usually consisting of a recording of a club performance by a DJ and intended to be sold to multiple individuals. In the 1970s, such DJs as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, Kool Herc and the Herculoids, DJ Breakout, the Funky Four, and DJ Hollywood would often distribute recordings of their club performances via audio cassette, as well as customized recordings (often prepared at exorbitant prices) for individual tape purchasers. These recordings tended to be of higher technical ability than home-made mixtapes and incorporated techniques such as beatmatching and scratching. One 12 October 1974 article in Billboard Magazine reported, "Tapes were originally dubbed by jockeys to serve as standbys for times when they did not have disco turntables to hand. The tapes represent each jockey's concept of programming, placing, and sequencing of record sides. The music is heard without interruption. One- to three-hour programs bring anywhere from $30 to $75 per tape, mostly reel-to-reel, but increasingly on cartridge and cassette." Club proprietors, as well as DJs, would often prepare such tapes for sale.
Throughout the 1980s, mixtapes were a highly visible element of youth culture. However, the increased availability of CD burners and MP3 players and the gradual disappearance of cassette players in cars and households have led to a decline in the popularity of the compact audio cassette as a medium for homemade mixes. The high point of traditional mixtape culture was arguably the publication of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity in 1995. Since then, mixtapes have largely been replaced by mix CDs and shared MP3 playlists, which are more durable, can hold more songs, and require minutes (rather than hours) to prepare, and MP3 players take only seconds compared to CD-Rs. While some mixtape enthusiasts bemoan the obsolescence of the cassette tape, others concede that the greater convenience offered by the mix CD has expanded the possibilities and accessibility of the medium, as indicated by the recent resurgence of mix-swapping clubs that trade mix CDs by regular mail. Some mix enthusiasts also appreciate the potential of the mix CD for extended, continuous mixes and creative album art. MP3 players have further enhanced track accessibility, though ones without a screen defeat that purpose.
Today, websites concerned with electronic music provide mixes in a digital format. These usually consist of recorded DJ sets of live, beat-matched mixes of songs, which are used by DJs seeking to demonstrate their mixing skills to an online audience. Some radio shows worldwide specialize in mix series, including The Breezeblock on BBC Radio 1, The Solid Steel Show (formerly on KISS-FM), Eddy Temple-Morris/The Remix on Xfm and The BTTB Show.
Additionally, DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, DJ QBert, DJ Spooky, DJ Z-Trip or DJ Shadow, The Avalanches, and Rjd2 have gained fame for creating new songs by combining fragments of existing songs (which need not necessarily belong to the same genre). The resulting remix or mash-up can be seen as an evolution of the mixtape, in that it appropriates existing songs to give them new meanings through their juxtaposition, but does so in a quicker, more integrated style. This practice is heavily derived from the use of song loops as musical backdrops for an MC's rhymes in hip hop music, which is also related to turntablism.
Mixtapes vs. compilations
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Many commercially available compilations of pop music initially seem to share certain important characteristics with mixtapes. Like many private mixes, a significant number of the earliest pop LPs were essentially collections of popular singles, and such compilation albums have often taken cues from underground mixes of the same era. One example is Disco Par-r-r-ty, the first nonstop dancing LP record, which was released by Spring Records in October 1974. Consisting of a continuous mix of songs by such artists as James Brown, Mandrill, and Barry White, it was clearly inspired by the bootleg DJ mixes that were becoming popular at the same time. However, the relative anonymity of the compilers of such albums is arguably inconsistent with the rationale behind most mixtapes, which typically reflect the musical tastes of a single compiler. While the editors of such compilations do exercise a certain amount of discretion over song order and selection, the term mixtape is generally restricted to a compilation where the identity of the compiler is clearly associated with the album itself. For example, Starbucks, the coffee chain, sells a compilation CD series called Artist's Choice, which consists of mixes based on selections by such artists as Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, and Sheryl Crow. Similarly, Apple Computer's iTunes Store features Celebrity Playlists, downloadable mixtapes in AAC-compatible form, selected by such artists as Moby, Barry Manilow, and Daft Punk. The Late Night Tales series has seen artists such as Four Tet and Turin Brakes make their own compilations that are distributed in mainstream record shops such as HMV.
The presence of an identifiable compiler whose tastes are reflected in song selection and arrangement allow retail mix CDs to be distinguished from other types of compilations. The distinction can be rather subtle. For example, while most "greatest hits" compilations of individual recording artists consist of a collection of singles in chronological order, others include album tracks, new songs, or obscure selections in addition to established hits, and sometimes reorder the songs for optimal listening. As such, these compilations can be seen as "artist-specific" mixes selected and arranged by the artists themselves.
One could also argue that the modern movie soundtrack, which often consists of selected pop music tracks (rather than the traditional orchestral score) is a mixtape with songs selected by the film's director or music supervisor.
Legal issues in the United States
An important distinction between homemade mixes and retail compilations of pop music is that the latter generally obtain permissions for the use of copyrighted songs, while the former do not. As a result, mixtapes, such as those produced and sold by club DJs in the 1970s, are illegal. Most[who?] mixtape enthusiasts assume that private mixtapes are inoffensive from a fair use standpoint, but this is far from clear. Frank Creighton, a director of anti-copyright infringement efforts for the Recording Industry Association of America, was quoted in New York Times as saying that "money did not have to be involved for copying to be illegal."
While the process of recording a mix onto an audio cassette from LPs or compact discs is technically straightforward, many music fans who create more than one mixtape are eventually compelled to confront some of the practical and aesthetic challenges involved in the mixtape format. From a practical standpoint, such issues as avoiding an excessive amount of blank tape at the end of one side (which requires careful planning of the length of each side of the mix) and reducing the audible click between songs (which requires mastery of the pause button on the cassette recorder) have been identified as part of the shared experience of mixtape aficionados. From an aesthetic point of view, many enthusiasts believe that because a tape player, unlike a CD player, lacks the ability to skip from song to song, the mixtape needs to be considered in its entirety. This requires the mixtape creator to consider the transitions between songs, the effects caused by juxtaposing a soft song with a loud song, and the overall "narrative arc" of the entire tape. One notable listing of such aesthetic "rules" can be found in a paragraph from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity:
|“||To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You Off My Mind", but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs and...oh, there are loads of rules.||”|
Many enthusiasts also devote substantial attention to the packaging of a mix tape intended as a gift, sometimes going so far as to create cover art and customized liner notes. The cover of the original McSweeney's edition of 31 Songs, a 2003 essay collection by Nick Hornby, was intended to suggest the packaging of a homemade mix CD. It also came with an actual CD featuring ten of the songs discussed in the text. Indeed, the look of mix tapes, featuring hand-written notes on the recording medium manufacturer's supplied labels, has become one of the aesthetic conventions of modern design, a distinct style that designers may attempt to copy or cite. Many have been so widely distributed that the CDDB has logged and can identify ID3 tags when a disc mix tape is inserted into a PC.
From an artistic point of view, many creators of mix tapes seem to regard them as a form of emotional self-expression, although whether a mix tape retains the same web of emotional associations when passed from its creator to the recipient is, at best, debatable. Some argue that in selecting, juxtaposing, or even editing originally unrelated tracks of pop music into a new work of art, the "author" of a mix tape moves from passive listener to archivist, editor, and finally active participant in the process of musical creation. (Some legitimacy for this viewpoint was provided by Cassette Stories, a 2003 exhibition at the Museum of Communication in Hamburg, Germany, which featured stories and submissions from eighty mix tape enthusiasts.) However, this perception of the mix tape as a work of art has been criticized as resulting in a sort of elitism, with creators becoming more concerned with finding arcane and surprising combinations of tracks than with creating a tape that is listenable, enjoyable, or appropriate to its intended recipient. (In High Fidelity, for example, the narrator's girlfriend complains that his mix tapes are too didactic.) On a very basic level, the creation of a mix tape can be seen as an expression of the individual compiler's taste in music, often put forward for the implicit approval of the tape's recipient, and in many cases as a tentative step towards building the compiler's personal canon of pop music.
Types of mixtapes
Although a "comprehensive" list of the different genres or categories of mixtapes could be extended indefinitely, creating a taxonomy of mix tapes is a project that many mixtape enthusiasts have intuitively attempted. The different types of mixtapes identified on community sites, such as FoundTrack and Art of the Mix (which lists over two hundred genres), indicate the variety of potential categories.
Beyond basic genres as the simple taping of an entire album, the collection of favorite songs, and the "snapshot" mix of recent favorites, some of the more commonly cited categories include the driving mix, the workout mix, the party mix, the krazy mix (eclectic selections of obscure, rare or otherwise unconventional tracks), the didactic mix (intended to educate the recipient as to the essential works of a particular artist or genre), the concept / theme mix (e.g., a mix of Christmas songs, songs about cars, covers of songs by a particular artist or similar), and the mood mix (i.e., a mix of songs intended to sustain a specific mood, stated or unstated — notable sub genres include the romantic mix and the break-up mix).
Mixtapes in hip hop
In hip hop's earliest days, the music only existed in live form, and the music was spread via tapes of parties and shows. Hip hop mixtapes first appeared in the mid-1970s in New York City, featuring artists such as Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. As more tapes became available, they began to be collected and traded by fans. In the mid-1980s, DJs, such as Brucie B, began recording their live music and selling their own mixtapes, which was soon followed by other DJs such as Kid Capri and Doo Wop. Ron G moved the mixtape forward in the early 1990s by blending R&B a cappellas with hip hop beats (known as "blends"). Blend tapes became increasingly popular by the mid-1990s, and fans increasingly looked for exclusive tracks and freestyles on the tapes. Also since the 1990s, it describes releases used to promote one or more new artists, or as a pre-release by more established artists to promote upcoming "official" albums. In the hip hop scene, mix tape is often displayed as a single term mixtape. It is now a word to generally describe full length albums released for free, sometimes all original music, other times composing of freestyles and remixes of popular tracks.
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