Sunday, January 27, 2013

AN APPRECIATION: Mixtapes


AN APPRECIATION:

Mixtapes

(PLEASE NOTE: This is an editorial written by a delusional 50 year old male nicknamed Spaz.  Discussions Magazine and its affiliated companies do not endorse copying of muisc in any way.  If this were a perfect world, someone would give Spaz a radio show in which he can extoll the virtues of music.  Until then, he writes about it.  The fine folks at Discussions Magazine want to clarify that Spaz's thoughts do not represent the company's position on mixtapes/CDs.  Although he does make good ones....

Spaz does not endorse the copying and sharing of digital files in general.  Go out and buy the music.  Use radio/streaming services and mixtapes as an introduction to new music, not as your only musical outlet)


For as long as I've been a music fan, mixtapes have been part of my means of sharing my love of music. No, make that my PASSION for music! While I don't think any of the original mixtapes I handed out to friends over the last 30 years have survived, I do believe that they made an impact in some way. And why do I think  this?  Because my friends have gone out to buy singles, LPs, cassettes and CDs by bands that I first introduced them to on those mixtapes, which is the main reason I made them!

You see, when I make a mixtape, it's never about ME ("Oh, look at how diverse my musical tastes are!"):  it's always been about the music.  When I hear something I really like or really love, I NEED to share it with as many folks as possible.  I feel COMPELLED to spread the word around about this new (or old) song/artist that I'm feeling really passionate about.  I want to play it for as many people as possible and see their reaction.  I want to INSPIRE them to go out and BUY that single or album right then and there!


As a young kid, that's what the radio did for me: it made me want to OWN a certain piece of music, whether it was a single or album.  Even if it was in constant rotation, that wasn't enough for me because I wasn't always going to be in front of a radio. I wanted to listen to it when I wanted to listen to it: not when the DJ decided to play it! Initially, I listened to everything that they radio offered, but when I hit my mid-teens, I figured that it was time to break away from the crowd and start diversifying my tastes a little bit.  I actually started searching for new music and not letting the radio or TV tell me what to buy.  I think that must have been 1977 or so...

Once I started finding new stuff to listen to, I was eager to show it to friends.  I'd sometimes lend an album to someone, but those LPs usually came back with a scratch or two that weren't there before.  Other times, I'd bring records over to people's houses (or invite them over) and we'd sit in front of a record player until everything was listened to. Obviously, this was in the days before mp3s, the internet, YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, etc., so I'd actually spend a lot of time with friends back in those days. And that is how true life-long friendships were born.  I'm sure that some of these same people I spent time with 'back in the day' are going to be reading this once I post the link to my Facebook page....



But there are many people out there who share similar experiences to mine, which is why I chose to write about this subject.  I'm not the only music geek in the world... and there are bigger geeks than me. I don't know everything about music, but I'm always on the search for new info and tunes.  You really aren't a true music fan unless you keep the mind open to new things, whether you think you'll like them or not.  Keeping yourself open to new things keeps things interesting. And best of all, you may discover something that enhances your life!

So, by the time I got a cassette deck, the idea of mixtapes became a reality.  I would never record an album straight, from start to finish, for one of my friends.  I thought that was cheating in a way.  Even back then, before the whole 'home taping is killing music' campaign, I felt that there was something inherently wrong about it.  While I knew that the artist wouldn't see a dime from someone taping my copy of the LP, my reasoning was also very selfish: why should I spend my hard earned cash just to have someone record it for free and use their money for something else?  That is around the time I stopped loaning albums to friends.  And believe it or not, there were a few folks that go really angry at me because I wouldn't let them tape something that I paid my hard earned $5 for!  Its not like they used the money they saved to buy some other album, which I would have kinda been OK with...  


So, instead, I would gather up my latest vinyl purchases and my personal fave albums, stack them up next to the tape deck/turntable and decide which songs off of each album would make it to a compilation tape that I was going to make. Now, bear in mind that each cassette mixtape that I made was created for a specific individual in mind.  Did that person deserve all the pre-production and hours spent making them a 90 minute mixtape?  Maybe not... but the music deserved to be heard so I would spend all that time and energy in creating this 'thing' that would hopefully turn someone on to a few good tunes and INSPIRE them to go out and buy some records. Why?  Because I believed in the whole grass roots/'word of mouth' scenario: you turn two of your friends onto a band, they turn two of their friends onto them, etc.

Bands that always seemed to make it onto my mixtapes included BLANKET OF SECRECY, SPLIT ENZ, SQUEEZE, A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS, THE LAMBRETTAS, MENTAL AS ANYTHING, NICK LOWE, YACHTS, THE UNDERTONES, MADNESS, 20/20, THE JAM, THE BLUEBELLS, THE ENGLISH BEAT, ULTRAVOX, THE LOTUS EATERS, RED BOX, FREUR, THE VAPORS, NEW MUSIK, THE LAUGHING DOGS, QUINCY, HAWKS, THE ELEKTRICS, GREAT BUILDINGS, THE BUSBOYS, DEAR ENEMY, JOBOXERS, WIDE BOY AWAKE, SHOES and many others. There was never a shortage of good music to introduce people to...

So, if someone was a big fan of Big Country and U2, then I certainly wouldn't focus on Synthpop bands on their mixtape: I'd concentrate on more anthemic guitar-based bands like The Alarm, The Armoury Show, The Skids and perhaps some of the less electronic recordings by Ultravox or A Flock Of Seagulls.  But the core of my mixtapes were bands that didn't get airplay on KROQ or MTV (which was new-ish at the time). I wanted to share these new discoveries of mine with as many people as possible. I would certainly throw a few hits on there in order to make the listener feel comfortable but I'd feature tons of new or obscure bands that needed more exposure.  It was like creating a radio broadcast for an audience of one.  And, as I stated before, every single mixtape was created for an individual, so every one of them was unique.  Even when CD-Rs became the platform of choice, I would never make more than one copy of any mix.  Well, unless it was really good and I wanted a copy myself!

Man, I was a geek.  

So, in the pre-digital days, how did you perfectly time a mixtape? I mean, how did you manage to fit as much music as possible onto a cassette without having a song cut off at the end of the tape?  I would NEVER allow that to happen on my mixtapes!  If I was putting a 3 minute song on a cassette and the last 30 seconds were cut off, then I'd rewind the tape, find a song that was 2 minutes and 25 seconds and record that one instead. It was always easier when i got to side two of the tape, though.  If I was down to the last song on side two, then I'd turn the tape over to side one and hit play: I could judge how much time I had left based on how much time had elapsed on the first (and possibly second) song. Yeah, it wasn't rocket science, but it worked!



Once that i felt that I 'understood' what someone wanted to listen to, I started really mastering the art of the mixtape.  I started creating what I felt was a great set list: start strong with at least five upbeat tracks before introducing a mid-tempo song and then tossing in a ballad, then another mid-tempo tune and finally back to more upbeat tracks again.  My thinking was this: if I can keep the listener interested, then they'd pay more attention to the mix and not lose interest.  Trust me, I've received mixtapes that had too many slow songs in a row and my attention would start wavering.  But not MY mixtapes, no!  They were always well thought out and perfectly timed.

There was never any real 'theme' to my mixtapes.  I just wanted to feature all the great songs that I was loving at the moment, no matter what style.  But that did cause a few problems with friends who didn't quite 'get' my eclectic tastes. I remember one of my friends, Carlos, saying he was embarrassed cuz he was playing a mixtape out by the pool at his complex and everyone around him was totally digging it... that is, until Tom Jones' "Help Yourself" came on amidst all the hip '80s sounds and his neighbors started giving him strange looks.  What they didn't realize is that Tom Jones' classic '60s recordings were cool in any era.  It wasn't until a few years later that Tom Jones became 'hip' again when he recorded Prince's "Kiss" with The Art Of Noise.  Was I ahead of my time?  No.  It's just that Carlos' neighbors weren't hip to the jive, so to speak.



 I used to get so many excited responses to my mixes.  My friends would ask me which album a particular song was on and then, when some of us would go out record shopping, they'd buy that album.  It seemed to happen quite a bit.  I'm sure some of my friends will tell you just how much music they were turned onto via one of my cassettes.  But that's not because of me: its because the music was so good.  I was merely the guy that introduced them to the song/artist.  Over time, I'd have friends telling me that they heard this or that song on KROQ... weeks after they heard it on my mixtape!  Madness' "Our House" was a prime example.  I remember working late one night with co-workers and one of the gals I worked with threw on one of my mixtapes on the boombox and was blown away by "Our House".  She asked me if she could borrow the 7" single to show to her husband and kids since they didn't have a tape deck at home.  They all loved it and had me buy the single for them next time I saw a copy.  Then, a month or so later, KROQ picked up on "Our House" and it became a huge hit.



The height of my 'mixtape days' lasted through most of the '80s but by the time the '90s rolled around, people weren't asking for them as much. They'd grown up and moved on and I was trying to do the same... but music still held its spell over me.  I was still collecting as much new music as I could but the age of CDs dawned and my friends started turning their backs on LPs and cassettes and were replacing their car stereos with CD players.  Needless to say, my cassettes became dinosaurs in the digital age.  I did make the occasional mix (especially the on-going Skib Dob series for my brother Mike) but, for my friends, my services had become obsolete...

By the end of the '90s, CD burners became the next big thing.  I, of course, jumped on that bandwagon the moment I could afford one.  Back then, they were only burning at 2 times the speed so one 70 minute CD-R would take 35 minutes to burn, but that was OK by me.  I started making 'mixtapes' again, but this time, I burned them on CD-R!  Even though it was nearly 20 years since I first started making them, I was able to start creating new ones again... and they sounded better than I could possibly imagine.  I was a happy camper... again.


While the demand was never high, I'd still go out of my way to make one if someone asked.  At that time, i was extremely limited as to what I could put on my mixes because not everything I loved was available on CD yet. But I soldiered on and began introducing new music to friends again.  While it was not as exciting as they '80s, there was still PASSION behind each and every mix I made.

I finally gave up my frantic mixtape making when I'd hear friends telling me that I 'had too much time on my hands' or they stopped saying anything at all about them. Even when folks would ask for them, they'd seldom take the time to listen to them.  Like a waning TV series, my mixtape days quietly got canceled.

I still make mixtapes on occasion, usually just to play in the office... or the occasional Skib Dob mix for my brother, but most people don't really seem to care anymore. I do find it kind of funny that its easier than ever to make a mixtape (on CD-R, of course) yet nobody really wants them anymore. I mean, there are tons of college kids making them these days and sharing them with friends, girlfriends, etc. But in this post-Napster  generation, it seems more about sharing illegally downloaded tracks than sharing a PASSION for music. (Which gets me thinking: music sales would go up across the board if girls would tell guys that if they are going to make them a 'romantic' mixtape, then all tracks must be legally purchased through approved sources!)

So, the only way I get to share new music these days is posting a video link on FB, which sometimes gets people interested, and writing about stuff here on the blog.  Sure, I can make mixes on Spotify, but it's not quite the same.  Somehow, I have to figure out a way to share so much amazing music with people and actually get them interested enough to listen!  In an age when people treat music as 'disposable' art, that is not going to be easy...

Is there anyone out there that is still interested in listening to mixtapes?  I honestly think so... and I'm determined to find all eight of you!




Peace, love and pancakes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee




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