Measuring the Mixtape: Some thoughts on Cultural Value, Sharing, and Identity Politics

100909_cassette_4 Cultural Value is a term that is increasingly employed by policymakers and scholars to describe the range of benefits cultural activities have on individuals, communities, towns, cities, and businesses (to name a few). Although a somewhat palpable concept – when we go to the theatre we feel as if the play, say, has had an effect on us – cultural value is a slippery concept as there is currently no clear-cut definition and no easy way of understanding or assessing the value of a cultural act. Despite the complexity, trying to identify, determine and evidence what might constitute cultural value is important as it can not only affect policy and arts funding, but also help us to understand our relationship to the arts, our culture, and the world around us. (For more on thinking about different approaches to understanding cultural value see Belfiore, E. & Bennett O. (2010) ‘Beyond the ‘toolkit approach’: Arts impact evaluation research and the realities of cultural policy-making’Journal for Cultural Research, 14.2. )

For some time now, I have been looking at the nature of the cassette-based mixtape of the 80s and 90s, an artefact and social activity that I find particularly fascinating when looked at from the perspective of cultural value. 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 often used to accompany a specific event or activity or gifted to friends and/or loved ones. Meticulous planning of the tracks was essential. 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. (Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, Riverhead Trade, 1995, 88-89)

As well as drawing attention to the planning involved, Hornby also connects the act of making a mixtape with that of writing a letter, suggesting that the mixtape requires a personal and emotional investment from the creator (and perhaps also the listener). Blending medium with message, art form with artefact, the mixtape acts as an emotional and affective conduit between the creator and the user, a shared experience where making and consuming are each important parts of the process.

In a way, the mixtape complicates a simple economic approach to understanding cultural value. While we could calculate the amount of blank cassettes sold, it is the transformative process of making and consuming that is key to the value that many listeners ascribe to the mixtape. Indeed, the mixtape is tied to notions of individual and group identity and the development and formation, in particular, of teenage identities and teenage relationships.

Providing a haptic and a sonic experience that combines creativity with craft, the mixtape provides a material and sonic space that allows creators and listeners to explore identity politics and forge an identity (or series of identities) in relation to the social groups in which they participate and interact. The question, then, is how do we assess the value of this haptic, material, and sonic experience? How do we calculate the benefit to the individuals who receive mixtapes and to those that create them? And, importantly, how do we bring into alignment the process of making and doing with the process of consuming in our understanding of cultural value?

A8EkTz9CYAAHSkcThe development of digital playlists further complicates these questions, as playlists can now be shared globally to a range of different networks and social groups. What does it mean to share these emotionally invested and carefully curated playlists with people from different locations, geographies and cultures? How do we understand this idea of sharing, and are there cross-cultural political ramifications to sharing artistic identities. (Indeed, the mixtape began as a reaction to the music industry and consumer culture, providing a disillusioned youth culture with a means to challenge the music industry and the idea of pre-packaged music for consumption).

The aim here isn’t to answer these questions, but to draw attention to them and the complex issues that require further and detailed exploration. To understand cultural value we need to undertake a multidisciplinary investigation into individual creativity and shared experience. We need ask what it means to imprint our identity on an object, and what it means to put our name to something. We need to explore what we learn and gain from communicating through music and art (rather than language) and think about how we might understand (and measure?) notions of emotional attachment and enchantment. Are these quantifiable concepts, and how can we address the fact that understandings of the mixtape, say, will change over time and with each person, community, and culture that engage with processes of making and listening to mixtapes.


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