Moving from the personal to the public, some mixtapes are meant to broadcast, not serenade. Most people have a friend or workmate who is always trying to get them to listen to "this great new band". The original Social Network app, a good mixtape can build more bridges than the Roman army. It also covers the whole gamut of self-promotion, from 'I know my music' to 'look how cool I am', however much you admit it to yourself...
As a misguided youth at the height of Napster's fame, I was a manic mixtaper, with illicit and eclectic music downloads helping to drive a new urge to create. I produced an overblown epic that opened with Suspicious Minds by Elvis and ended with Dylan's Man in the Long Black Coat via Fat Joe's What's Love (- my achilles heel, the desire to mix hip hop with folk, for non-hip hop folk or unfolking hip hoppers). I stuck a Maradona picture on the front, burned a few copies for my favourite call-centre colleagues the day before Christmas...just before they made us all redundant. Remember, kids, a mixtape (unlike a job) isn't just for Christmas.
You could argue that a CD isn't quite a mixtape and you'd be right, it's not. But when tapes died out it became the closest thing we had. The rules changed slightly but the game was still the same. The later jump from mixtape to playlist was much more of a game-changer.
The Friday Songcast
Fast forward ten years and at Linn we've started 'the Friday Songcast': at 3pm every Friday, a guest DJ steps in with their own lovingly-prepared playlist and anyone in the building can tune in and listen to it at their desk. The whole mixtape mania is back and everyone from the MD to the cleaner gets a turn. This time your playlist is exposed to all and sundry, and that decision to follow Jamie T with Bob Dylan now seems wholly inexplicable...
A good songcaster will put notes alongside their selections, either with a nice little personal memory attached or, if you're like me, lots of bad puns, tenuous links and confusing attempts to be too clever by half. Like the mixtape though, it's just like spending an hour sitting on someone's couch while they play you their favourite songs and talk about them a bit. Which brings out the amateur DJ in us all.
Yet despite the live 'mixtape' songcast, I still found myself burning CDs to pass on to friends and workmates who weren't able to listen live. Like any good mixtape you've put a lot of effort into, you want to spread the music love as wide as possible (tracklisting at foot of page). The beauty of a good mixtape is that it can turn others on to new artists and albums, offsetting the potential copyright 'theft' with some artist advocacy which should hopefully result in one or two album sales.
It's easy to forget that one of the key roles of mixtapes was to recommend as much as seduce. There might be the odd song leveraged in there for a particular title or lyric but you wouldn't include anything on that you didn't like or wouldn't recommend to others. And the best bit about mixtapes is getting feedback from happy listeners: "What's track #5 and where has it been all my life?" Ah, bliss.
These days you're more likely to receive your music recommendations via web links or online comments. Within seconds you can research a band, see what they look like and stand for, and listen to any track; compare this to the traditionally long wait until Saturday morning when you can visit the local record shop, purchase and take your prized single back home to listen to. The game has changed forever.
You can make a playlist up in less time than it takes to listen to it. You can share it with anyone and everyone instantly, and if they're playing the same music service game as you then they can listen to it too. But it's no longer a physical thing; the physical has become symbolic and sharing has become about distribution rather than craftsmanship; promote not bespoke.
I still have a spreadsheet containing the 'development' for my hand-made 'Best of Oasis' mixtape. I'd planned a two-disc CD compilation and so had to note and calculate the track times in order to achieve the perfect mix on both sides. I sourced a rare band picture online and created my own custom sleeve notes and cover, making one for myself and one for my best friend and fellow Oasis-monkey. I eventually lost my own copy too, making his the only version in existence. It doesn't have to be physical to be unique, but it helps.
I asked my younger brother what he wanted for his birthday one year and he demanded a CD-version of a mixtape I'd made about 10 years earlier called 'Social Construct', a rock A-Z from Born to be Wild to Jumping Jack Flash. Delighted (and a little surprised) that it had been so memorable, I found a copy of the tracklisting and did my best to recreate it, though I think I was missing a song or two and it lacked the hand-written tracklist in green ink...
More than a playlist
A good compilation can make you feel like you're listening to a mixtape. I recently bought a music magazine, which is unusual for me, because Noel Gallagher was guest-editing and made his own mixtape for the front-cover CD giveaway. It's a cracking mixtape: personal and eclectic, but with a common theme running through it. I even nicked one of the tracks for my own mix, so surprised was I to find that Alan Hull and Lindisfarne were actually far more than just a Gazza support act.
The main reason I made the time to listen to Noel's mixtape, and gave it a chance to influence me, was because it wasn't just some random playlist that somebody had posted. It wasn't even a playlist; it was a mixtape. And it was from Noel Gallagher - the wise old man of Britpop who memorably described his brother Liam as ' the angriest man you'll ever meet. He's like a man with a fork in a world of soup.' - and he'd obviously put a lot of thought into it.
The reality is there's more music available now than there's ever been - more music than there is time to listen to it all. The recent glut of playlist sharing and facebooking what you're listening to ignores the fact that a mixtape is so much more than a playlist. It's all about who makes it and how much effort they put into it. It's also the physical act of receiving a disc or tape, hand-written or not. A friend at Linn was trying to get me into The Fall and gave me a CD with a lovely, colourful cover hand-drawn by his young daughters. I desperately tried my best to like that album.
As Fingertips states, 'the dirty secret of the mixtape business' is the fact that it is often more fun for the person making the mixtape than the person receiving it. The only thing worse than nobody listening to your mixtape is nobody liking or commenting on your mixtape. Even more so for lovemixtapes - there must be a special hell reserved for those who never listen to a mixtape that was hand-crafted for them and them only.
Whether you're mixing for one or for many, like writing, there are some who claim they do so only for themselves, not bothered whether others read or listen. But for the majority it's all about sharing. And it only takes a collective deathly silence to make you question whether it was really worth putting in so many man-hours to sculpt that 60-minute masterpiece. (It is always worth it - after all, what do the critics know?)
With services like Spotify and last.fm, and the web awash with playlists ("Long live the mixtape" says ShareMyPlaylists.com) it sometimes feels like music is being recommended by a computer rather than your friends. When was the last time someone physically played you a new song rather than just mentioned or linked to it? You wouldn't let a computer choose your music in the 80s - even one recommended by William Shatner - so why now? We shouldn't forget that it's always the personal touch that makes a mixtape or playlist great.
There is plenty of music that is often best enjoyed alone (see Cohen, Leonard) but music is generally meant to be enjoyed together. This is not quite the same as 'shared', as the word is often used online, where copy/duplicate/send has replaced the notion of giving up something, or a portion of something, in order to be able to 'share'. In a digital world, you can have your cake and still eat it. Like the glut of online playlists, Spotify founder Daniel Ek wants "music to be like water -- available everywhere, available seamlessly". I generally prefer a glass of wine to water, and a mixtape that can turn water into wine is something to cherish.
With all this talk about mixtapes and playlists, I thought it was worth "sharing" my own (argh, I just can't resist!). This was my second songcast (imaginatively titled The Sequel) and was streamed live to Linn on the Friday before the last 9/11 anniversary, hence the star-spangled theme:
Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue,
A soulful look across the water.
Playlist available on Spotify here (minus the Bob Dylan and Oasis tracks, due to Spotify not quite having "all the music") for anyone who fancies a listen.
1. Spider's Web - Jamie T
'Making in-jokes about Americana...'
From Jamie T's Kings and Queens to the King of Americana, Bobby D, a web is also a circle too.
2. Eternal Circle - Bob Dylan
'But the song it was long and there was more to get sung...'
Sam Cooke thought Dylan's epic civil rights anthem 'Blowin' in the Wind' should have been written by a black man. So he wrote his own.
3. A Change Is Gonna Come - Sam Cooke
'I was born by a river in a little tent...'
Between them, Bob and Sam changed a lot. Arthur Lee's response to a jilted lover who claimed that he said he would love her forever - Forever Changes - became the title of Love's classic album.
4. A House Is Not A Motel - Love
'And the water's turned to blood...'
From the west coast to the east coast, welcome to New York.
5. N.Y. State of Mind - Nas
'The game ain't the same...'
A swordfight is like a game of chess - so too is a playlist. The Wu Tang are from New York too and like swordfights and chess mostly.
6. Investigative Reports - GZA
'A battle was fought in Brooklyn...'
From the Judgement Night soundtrack, set in the most-shot city in the world, and also featuring Tom Petty and Jeff Lyne too.
7. Fallin' - Teenage Fanclub & De La Soul
'I bring it to the blues, I pay all my dues...'
ODB regularly fought battles in Brooklyn and was shot a few times too. Here's the last song he featured on.
8. Old Man - Masta Killa
'I rock the mic and make the crowd said "Ho!"'
From a cheeseburger to peanut butter & jelly, no filler here.
9. Peanut Butter & Jelly - The Beastie Boys
Bobby Womack was a Sam Cooke protege. If Bobby really had 5 musical siblings then he could have started Womack and Womack and Womack and Womack and Womack. Or Womack 5, for short.
10. Across 110th Street - Bobby Womack
'I was the third brother of five...'
Bobby's hometown was New York, twinned with London, England.
11. Hometown Glory - Adele
'I like it in the city | when two worlds collide...'
Adele did an excellent and almost unrecognisable cover of Bobby Dylan's Make You Feel My Love. Regina lives in New York though.
12. Summer in the City - Regina Spektor
'Summer in the city means cleavage cleavage cleavage...'
Probably splitting too much time between two cities here...
13. Half the World Away - Oasis
'I would like to leave this city...'
Summer's over anyway, it's harvest time.
14. King Harvest (Has Surely Come) - The Band
'My whole barn went up in smoke...'
We're putting The Band back together. And Johnny's in charge.
15. I Hung My Head - Johnny Cash
'A shot rang out across the land...'
Unfortunately, time's up for Johnny. Skinner too.
16. Lock The Locks - The Streets
'I had a funny dream and I came to screaming...'
Perhaps history will judge Lindisfarne without Gazza.
17. We Can Swing Together - Alan Hull
'They took us to see the county judge...'
Sam Cooke was probably following Dylan's lead when he told Bobby Womack that from now on it was not going to be about who had the prettiest voice, it was going to be about who was the most believable. From now on, people who wrote the songs would be singing them.
18. Running Out The Tape - Sam Cooke
'What soul represents...'