Recreating the Mixtape Experience: Emotional Attachment and Digital Music Platforms

In this short piece, I want to discuss the recent interest in dead analogue musical formats and whether this might be connected to the recent developments in digital music service provision. In the last few years, the mixtape and the cassette have featured in and across a range of different media:

  • BBC6 Music recently dedicated an entire afternoon to the history of the cassette;
  • Both BBC6 Music and the BBC Asian Network feature programmes that use mixtape in the title;
  • Jamie Cullum has a song titled ‘Mixtape’ on his 2009 album The Pursuit,
  • The Broadway Musical Avenue Q features a comic song that discusses the romantic merits of the mixtape;
  • Gallery exhibitions of mixtape-inspired artworks have taken place in Germany, Australia, and the USA (MIX TAPE 1980S: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, April 2013; Look and Listen: Los Angeles, August 2012; Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, June 2011);
  • Books have been dedicated to the subject (Thurston Moore, Cassette Culture, 2004; Jason Bitner, Cassette for My Ex, 2009);
  • And a number of news articles have appeared on the BBC News and Guardian websites that examine the history of the cassette and the so-called cassette comeback.

Perhaps more intriguing than these examples, though, is the references made to cassette culture within digital culture. Not only are there a number of apps that reference mixtapes and cassette culture – such as the digital tape reel that until recently accompanied the playing of podcast episodes on the iPad – but there are also a number of applications and platforms that seek to digitally recreate the mixtape experience.

The Spotify application Share My Playlist, for instance, makes a direct connection between the mixtape experience and the more modern digital playlists, the site explicitly evoking the mixtape in their tag line ‘Long Live the Mixtape’. The recent surge in interest in this supposedly dead analogue format is interesting and begs a number of questions such as:

  • Why mixtapes are being used as a cultural reference point in this modern digital age?
  • Why the analogue past is haunting the digital present?
  • And whether there is any connection between the mixtape and the recent developments of online music services.

Nostalgia as a Critical Tool and the History of the Mixtape

For music critic Simon Reynolds, the return of the mixtape is symptomatic of a much wider cultural trend.[1] He argues that in the last ten years we have succumbed to an intense kind of archive fever that has resulted in a stifling of musical creativity. Mourning the loss of a musical present, Reynolds’s puts forward a view of the modern world as subsumed by an overwhelming preoccupation with the past. The resurgent interest in the mixtape is, in a way, representative of this trend, the mixtape functioning as symbol for a lost era of music listening. Although nostalgia is rarely used as a critical tool, I wonder whether in this case it could be used to inform our understanding of the relationship between material pasts and digital futures.

It seems sensible to give a brief history of the mixtape and to identify what it was that people valued  – and still value – about this musical format. The mixtape was primarily a way by which to share music. Both an artefact and a social activity, mixtapes consisted of a carefully selected sequence of musical tracks and were used either to accompany an event, an activity, or to communicate a musical message to a friend or loved one. The romantic mixtape is, perhaps, the most fondly remembered. It was an affordable – yet powerful – way of showing affection to a potential lover.

The perfect mixtape, though, was not easy to create and required both skill and meticulous planning. As the character Rob describes in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity:

Making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again…You’ve got to kick off with a corker, but hold the attention…and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, 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.[2]

To create the perfect mixtape, you need to think about what songs you will include, how they will be ordered, and what the message is that you are trying to get across.

Jason Bitner’s book Cassette for my Ex: Songs and Soundtracks to Lost Loves provides a fascinating insight into the value attributed to the mixtape.[3] Consisting of a series of mixtape stories told some 10 to 20 years after the mixtape was created, Bitner’s collection shows how mixtapes are social artefacts that have the power to draw out forgotten memories and enable listeners to reflect, reframe, and in some cases idealise their past. A particular interesting story is that told by Jessica Agneessens. She writes:

The tape was an early birthday gift – I’d be in my new city by the time I actually turned 21 – [and] she intended on me listening to it on the drive. It was terrible to say good-bye…The liner notes stated that it would be a while before she could visit. She blamed her class schedule but the sharp edge of that repeated declaration suggested how abandoned she felt by my departure. I played the tape repeatedly on the drive to the Midwest and for a long time after. The mix wasn’t much different from what my peers were listening to, but it was a far cry from that which my peers in Eugene had been listening to…The Pixie had done me a great service, she had prepared me for life outside Eugene. It became the soundtrack to my awkward adjustment to a new town and eventually to my grandfather’s death.[4]

Agneessens story highlights the power of the mixtape. It shows how the personality of the receiver and the creator are both imprinted on the mixtape – and how a mixtape can be reimagined and reframed by the owner over time. The track listings can be seen below for Side One and Side Two of the Cassette:

Emotionally Durable Design and Mixtape Narratives

Inscribed with personal narratives, mixtapes combined musical listening with social experiences. From a design perspective, the social nature of the mixtape actually provides an interesting example of emotionally durable design. A term developed by design theorist Jonathan Chapman, emotionally durable design offers a potential solution to hyper-consumerism and increasing waste.[5] Arguing that ‘emotionally durable design’ has the potential to transport users beyond the ephemeral world of technocentric design, Chapman’s research examines how ideas of narrative, attachment, enchantment, surface and consciousness can be embedded into the design process to enable users to have longer-lasting and more significant emotional connections with their purchases.

By connecting the memories and musical taste of both the creator and the receiver, the mixtape is an artefact filled with enchantment  – a connection established almost immediately between object and user. The emotional

Young couple listening to music and looking at records in a living room (Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum)

attachment is heightened by the fact that the mixtape brings together an aural experience with a haptic and visual one. The inlay, the tape, and the casing all form part of the mixtape experience. Like the experience often attributed to vinyl records, mixtapes are as much about listening, as they are about looking, touching, and sharing. Indeed, the contents of the tape, the accompanying album art, and the extra-musical texts all imbue the mixtape with a complex series of musical and non-musical signposts that encourage the listener to hear the mixtape in a particular way. 

Urban and Digital Chill vs. Analogue and Social Warmth

Despite the popularity of the cassette-based mixtape, by the mid 1990s the mixtape began to disappear. A direct result of CDs becoming a more affordable medium and increasing access to the Internet at home, the mix-CD took over as the main way by which to share music. Although it may seem that the change is not that significant, the fact that CDs could be complied by dragging and dropping files meant that the craft element to mixtapes was lost. Couple this with the birth of peer-2-peer file sharing and the gap between mixtapes and mix CDs becomes even more significant. As file sharing provided Internet users with access to a diverse and global library of music (albeit illegal) – some of the imitations of mixtape making were removed. Most significantly, mix CDs were no longer dependent upon the contents of a limited material musical collection.

The introduction of the iPod in 2001 and the option to purchase single tracks rather than albums took this to the next level – iPod-ITunes synchronization enabling users to create multiple and endless playlists quickly and easily. As music journalist Dylan Jones says:

Albums ceased to matter, and I could edit with impunity. Why bother with REM’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi when all you really want is Electrolite and E-Bow The Letter? Why continue to ruin Pet Sounds, the best album recorded by anyone in the 1960s, by suffering the absurdity of Sloop John B when you can simply delete it.[6]

The iPod afforded users with the opportunity not only to create a purely personal library of music at the level of the musical track, but also to curate their collection as they saw fit through the use of user-friendly drag-and-drop digital playlists. As Jones’ notes, albums could be easily tweaked and adapted, and playlists created to suit any mood, activity, or event.

In contrast to the cassette-based mixtape, the iPod encouraged a listening experience that was primarily personal, rather than social. This is something that I think is abundantly clear from Apple’s early iPod commercials – the silhouetted figures here highlighting the private musical experience offered by the iPod.

Stifling Creativity – The Digital Archive

Internet broadband enabled streaming services such as Spotify to further the music service model proposed by iTunes. Through a subscription-based service, Spotify provides users with access to an almost limitless and on-demand, global and timeless archive of music. As of June 2012 there were 10 million active users with over 500 million playlists had been generated.[7] An increasingly important figure in the music industry, Spotify is attempting to transform the music experience through the development of a suite of tools that assist users to navigate the vast global library of music. Using add-on applications, users can search for playlists to accompany specific activities – such as this Reebok application that provides playlists for a range of sports activities:

Still: Reebok Playlist Generator on Spotify

Users can auto-generate playlists based on their mood or their musical taste. Users can chat and discuss music while listening to crowd-sourced music playlists. And users can listen to playlists created by people from across the globe. While Spotify is clearly seeking to develop new ways of music discovery and listening, the platform still pushes more towards a passive model of engagement, applications frequently based on auto-recommendation and pre-selection, rather than the personal creativity we associate with the mixtape.

If we take a moment to reflect on the experience attributed to the mixtapes discussed earlier and the listening experiences offered by Apple and Spotify, we can begin to understand why in the last few years there has been a resurgent interest in the mixtape. To consider once again Agneessens mixtape, we can see that it is defined by the considerable artist repetition (both Sonic Youth and Sebadoh featuring three times), the use of music of a similar generic ilk (the majority of the music having a rock or DIY feel – Stereolab and Bowie being notable exceptions), and, if we listen carefully, the employment of melancholic meta-narrative of loss and frustration. In a sense, the mixtapes emotional power is connected to the technological limitations of the mixtape medium. Mixtape Cover ArtAs the mixtape was necessarily based upon the music you had in your record collection, it was necessarily representative of music that you had both a personal and a financial investment in. As the mixtape required you to sit, select, and listen to the tracks as they recorded, the process of making the mixtape becomes embedded into the way in which it is experienced. (An analogy can certainly be made here with the emotional attachment often ascribed to craft-based, handmade furniture – the process feeding into the way in which the object is understood and appreciated). And as blank cassettes came with blank inlays, the mixtape also afforded the creator with opportunity to create a handwritten inlay and cover design that could heighten the connection between cassette and content and between creator and listener.

While the Internet has provided us with new and exciting new ways by which to discover music, it has also rendered obsolete the characteristic technical limitations of the mixtape, and quite unintentionally the intense emotional connection that the mixtape forged between creator – tape – and listener. Although Spotify is swimming against the digital current in this respect, the digital playlist will never be able to fully recreate the effect of its analogue counterpart – something will always be lacking.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the digital is always destined to fail and that we are to forever mourn analogue technology. As David Gauntlett has recently argued in his book Making is Connecting (Polity Press, 2011), Web 2.0 technologies are perfect for enabling creative and social interactions. The problem, though, is that many of the current digital platforms (such as Facebook and Spotify) do not allow for users to actively engage in social and creative experimentation, only to replicate analogue experiences – think photo albums and Flickr, mixtapes and Spotify, and books and ebooks.

Conclusion and Listening Forward

The challenge, then, is to think about how we can harness Web 2.0 technologies to develop digital environments that go beyond rigid archival structures and that allow for new levels of social engagement and creativity. In short, we need to think about going beyond storage and broadcast, and create new digital experiences.

By looking at the mixtape and comparing it with the development of the digital playlist, I hope to have shown how an investigation into what we value in material culture might inform the way in which we engage with and develop digitally mediated environments. To move beyond the archive and cure ourselves or archive fever, we need to think about how to embed the haptic and the sensory into digital experience. We need to think about social interaction, history, narrative and memory. Music platforms such as Spotify, for instance, need to go beyond providing a library of music and provide a musical experience that is fundamentally social and that provides the listener with a sense of history, of change, and of performance – music is after all is a live art form. As more and more time is spent archiving and recording our lives online, we need to question whether the format by which we share our digital memories is the right format and whether we are inadvertently dispensing with some of the elements to material culture that we hold most dear.

A version of this text was presented at the AHRC-funded Digital Transformers Symposium held at Manchester Metropolitan University (May, 2013).

[1] Simon Reynolds, Retromania (Faber and Faber, 2011)

[2] Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (Riverhead Trade, 1995), 88-89.

[3] Jason Bitner, ed. Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves (St. Martin Griffin, 2009).

[4] Ibid., 112.

[5] Jonathan Chapman, Emotionally Durable Design (Routeledge, 2005)

[6] Dylan Jones, iPod Therefore I Am (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008), 20.

[7] Data acquired from Spotify.


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