Those of us of a certain age remember the ubiquitous mix tape. We made them for our best girlfriends on their birthdays, for boys and girls we crushed on, and for our younger siblings, bringing them into the fold of “cool.” We received them much in the same way, personally curated with a clear directive: a road trip, an anti-algebra protest (for those of us not good with numbers), a condolence for a loss or break-up. We crafted the paper insert covers in collage cut from magazines or newspapers, or colored them over in crayon and markers. The mix tape might be one of the purest expressions of feeling a person can share. Melody plus lyrics plus artwork (or no artwork) demonstrated time spent consciously collecting something so essential to life: music.
Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore of the band Sonic Youth, is a look into the practice and craft of the mix tape, with essays from a long list of contributors including photographers, writers, poets, visual artists, designers, and many musicians, each recalling a specific mix tape that held, and still holds, meaning in their post-cassette lives. Today, many of us stream much of the music we listen to. The playlist has replaced the mix tape (or the mix CD). It’s hard to imagine that record companies protested the invention of the recordable cassette, which we bought in droves. They feared revenue loss and called it piracy. It’s amazing how that control has changed in the years since, how the battle to maintain control of the industry has weighed heavily in favor of the consumer (and pirate), and how musicians have taken up the battle to defend their own art, often breaking from traditional paths to establish their own labels or sign with smaller, independent labels, like Florence, Alabama’s Single Lock Records (where we first learned about this book).
Inspired by Mix Tape, last month we launched a new monthly feature on the Journal, PLAYLIST, where we share a streaming playlist through Spotify, curated by a different artist each time. We’re bringing attention to the artists/musicians we love, as well as discovering great new music for ourselves. As exciting as this may be – that we can share music with one another, communicating through a new technology – we are still nostalgic for those handmade mix tapes of yore.
Mix Tape was published in 2004, with no mention of digital downloads or streaming. Thurston Moore boos the Compact Disc for its ultra-refined sound:
“At this point with 10,000 CDs released each day and used record stores brimming over with $.99 CDs and thrift stores offering CDs and records pennies per pound the best way to really organize it all is to break it down onto tapes. Just plow through the records and record the best bits onto cassette. If you really need to transfer it to CDR, go for it, but remember: you’re turning it into a digital format and therefore your ear-heart will tire. Huh? Yeh, you’re ear-heart. Dig it: normal bias cassettes rule. (Next to vinyl of course). And it’s not a fetish either (well, not entirely…). Vinyl is analog – not a definitive sound wave like digital, which is numeric and perfect transcription. With digital, your brain hears all the information in its numeric perfection. Analog has the mystery arc where cosmos exist, which digital has not reined in. We used to listen to records over and over and each time they would offer something new because the ear-heart would respond to new resonations not previously detected. It was like each kiss had a new sensation. Digital format offers one cold kiss. A mere peck.”
Recordable cassettes and cassette players have all but gone extinct. But vinyl is making a resurgence, and Moore’s ear-heart argument for analog recordings makes you want to trade in the old CDs for pennies per pound record hauls, just to feel that sensation.
We are fortunate to have a great record store here in Florence. Pegasus Records has been in business for over 30 years, and it’s the place to go for vinyl, both used and new releases. Sometimes, they even take in a haul of old cassette tapes. We may have lost some of the art of analog magic with the mix tape, but at least we have not lost the music and we are very excited to see (and hear) the new PLAYLIST feature grow and connect players and listeners.
Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore, is published by Universe Publishing, a division of Rizzoli International.
P.S.: Did you know there’s an annual Cassette Store Day? We just might have to road trip to Oxford for this one.