Tag Archives: craft

Mixed Tapes: A Labour of Love

This paper began as I sat at my desk trying to decide what to do with my collection of cassette tapes. Many of these tapes are mixed tapes made by assorted friends and most trigger a set of memories.  Feeling somewhat nostalgic, and yet also trying to see where that led me because I am doing some work on nostalgia I eventually thought I might just throw the tapes out if I could recreate the most precious.

I decided to recreate this tape given to me by a girlfriend in Rochester, New York in 1987 using mp3.

1987 Mixed Tape

1987 Mixed Tape

I had some of the tape’s songs as mp3 already having burned them from cds in my collection. As I searched  iTunes and elsewhere for the other songs on the tape I thought about the sort of effort that had gone into making the tape in the first place, and what had caused her to make it for me (a reply to a tape I had made for her).

I began with the basic notion of a Labour of Love, something that is observed in all three works on mixed tapes that discuss their production and effect: Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mixed Tape, and Sonic Youth mainstay Thurston Moore’s edited collage volume Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Tape.  But then I started to think about a somewhat more complex aspect of craft, which is the notion I want to develop more in this paper today. But first full disclosure: the leap to notions of craft occurred because I was preparing to teach a graduate research seminar in History for which I was using Marc Bloch’s book The Historian’s Craft and so the notion of craft as an occupation as a calling and as something deeply engaging around which to build a life and identity was on my mind. But somewhat more on my mind were concepts of nostalgia. I was engaging in nostalgia but in some of my other work I had been thinking about different manifestations of nostalgia both negative and positive. Underlying this paper is the view that mixed tapes represent a definition of Music, say as a discovery. They also represent a view of technology. And in looking back to these there is a nostalgic longing for simplicity and probably a better self.

My abstract for the paper expresses some of the basics of what I want to say today. Basically that falls under three subheadings: Rules, Types, and Craft.   In Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity the protagonist Rob Fleming (Rob Gordon in the John Cussack film version) reflects on the craft of creating a compilation, or mixed tape. He notes that it is no easy task and must begin with “a corker to hold the attention.” He goes on to delineate the “rules” of creating such tapes.

1.    Mixed tapes have rules
The Rules as proposed by Hornby (p. 69) are:

•    Kick off with a corker
•    Then up it a notch or cool it a notch
•    Can’t have white music and black music together unless white sounds like black.
•    Can’t have two tracks by same artist together unless whole tape is in pairs
•    And hide the declaration of love somewhere on side two

I think rules do not warrant too much discussion per se as rules, but I will return to the concept under craft.

2.    There are different types of mixed tapes
The are different types of mixed tapes but the most basic is the love tape, which comes in two forms as the musician Dean Wareham puts it the Moore volume Mix Tape:

It takes time and effort to put a mix tape together. The time spent implies an emotional connection with the recipient. It might be a desire to go to bed, or to share ideas. The message of the tape might be: I love you. I think about you all the time. Listen to how I feel about you. Or, maybe:  I love me. I am a tasteful person who listens to trashy things. This tape tells you all about me. (p. 28)

Everyone I spoke to had a story about mixed tapes. People reminded me of party tapes, which seem to have been his specialty and probably something most of us, of an age, have done. Indeed Rob Sheffield begins his partial list of tape types with “the Party Tape,” and goes on to mention the “I Want You,” “We’re Doing It? Awesome,” “The Road Trip,” “You Broke My Heart,” and “No Hard Feelings” (pp.18-21) which when I look is a bit of a mixed taped makers progress and certainly describes at least one relationship I had (but I did move road trip before you broke my heart to give it this feel).

A colleague told me about the song “He Made Me a Mixed Tape” from Avenue Q the lyrics of which confirm Hornby’s rule about burying the love declaration on side 2.

3.    The craft requires, and is concomitant with, particular sorts of materials and technologies
In High Fidelity, both the novel and film, a film incidentally that gets better as it gets older because it becomes more nostalgic, mixed tapes are literally labours of love.  If these tapes were not always a labour of love they were indeed statements of the creator’s identity, knowledge, and prowess as understood through a collection of music. The heyday of the mixed tape occurred roughly from the widespread availability of affordable cassette decks from the mid 1970s to sometime in the late 1990s when the combined force of cds and file sharing programs put an end to the tapes for all but die-hards. Crafting a tape required a set of tools: a stereo system with ability to dub from record to tape, or tape to tape, or both, and later, circa 1986, to dub from cd to tape. A goodly supply of source material on which to draw was also essential. The key component to the craft though was the cassette tape and one of 90 minutes duration was the optimum length. Assembling a set of songs to convey a sentiment in a form that engendered appropriate emotional responses had to be achieved on a 45 minute a side cassette. The craft in part lay in the form, a cassette, and the time limit. That making a tape was a craft and labour requires us to remember that the technology meant sitting through at least 90 minutes of taping. But shaping 90 minutes of finished tape took much longer.

Let me say by craft I mean the sort of labour performed by skilled workers and not the sort of craft conceived as art and craft and relegated to kindergartens filled with paste eating children. And in my title I have associated craft with fans, rather than say hobbyists, because I want to lay claim to the position fans are increasingly occupying as cultural producers and arbitrators rather than the geeky nerds so often depicted in trekkie stereotypes.

To arrive at a working version of what craft entailed I want to offer a set of propositions:

a.    Prowess in owning right music
To produce a mixed tape having a good collection of music was important. A good collection of music did not necessarily mean a large collection but a collection that enabled one to convey a message. For instance in the tape I made for Sarah I would have been trying to convey a mix of rugged Australianism (It was the year Crocodile Dundee broke after all) and sensitive alternative hard rocking music guy. Having left my lps in storage in Australia my collection consisted of about 10 cassette tapes and my technology a cheap dual deck. But I had some great stuff to work with thanks in the main to this one tape a friend (another Ian) had made for me:

Rememmber Australia tape 1987

Remember Australia tape 1987

I recall one misstep in this process, which was including the Australian artist Richard Clapton’s mid 1980s song Solidarity that tried to work the cache of the Polish trade union into a love/protest/alienated youth song to a quasi disco beat slicked up by West Coast producers.

b.    Prowess in producing music
By producing music I mean putting together the 90 minutes of a mixed tape in a way that offered a unique aural experience. Here rules are important as ways to shape craft. If you like you could think of a mixed tape as like a haiku, with say the most perfect tape occupying exactly 45 minutes a side. The sort of rules that can be applied to producing a mixed tape have infinite combinations. By this stage some of you are probably totally tuned out to what I am saying and busily compiling mixed tapes in your head to a set of your own rules, a set of rule to be sure that will result in your perfect tape. And it is all about the music on the tape. Look at the “covers” of most mixed tapes:

Hand written mixed tape covers

Hand written mixed tape covers

the art of the form is in the mix of music on the tape. That is the mixed tape is about the music and not about music as a package. It is a fine distinction and comes down to the minimal information people put on the Cassette cover, generally: band name and song title. Even here there is no set form and sometimes getting a new tape was an education in distinguishing band names from song titles especially if your tape buddy listed in a different order than you. One of the features of craft alongside expertise is an individual product rather than mass produced sameness.

But that said sometimes a craftsperson will make a cover because it amplifies the point of the tape:

Cover Remember Australia tape

Cover Remember Australia tape

The tape was made for me as a departing gift when I left for the US in 1987. The music was to ground me in Australian bands (mostly Sydney bands) and the cover in a certain politics. That the cover now looks like a history lesson is probably no surprise. It lists a series of pubs that bands played in and the art house cinema near Sydney University among other things, and contains a clipping from an article about an aboriginal death in custody.

c.    The link to the technology made explicit
The decline of the form shows how this craft is explicitly, and implicitly(?),  linked to the technology of the cassette tape. In many ways it is linked to the limitations of the tape and a response to it. For instance I could easily make a mix tape still. I have a stereo with a cd player that will dub to the inbuilt cassette tape recorder. But why would I want to? I could do it for the craft to be sure, but that would simply be artificial. The whole point of the cassette was that is was easier to carry around than an lp. A rather renown Australian historian of the USA (a big Springsteen fan) made party tapes because they allowed him to take music to a party in his pocket rather than lug over an lp. In his case it was probably all Bruce Springsteen anyway, but still the convenience factor was the issue. To see the link between the technology and the craft I think we just have to trace how we began making mixed tapes. I know I did so after copying many friends’ albums I did not have. Often there were only some songs on these that I wanted and whereas on an lp record one could easily skip unwanted songs on a tape it was hard to do so. A mixed tape allowed all the good stuff. Also a mixed tape was more fun on a long plane flight. Taking a couple of mixed tapes on a flight potentially provided more options than tapes of whole lps. Here then the craft is related to specific purposes and if a technology comes along that makes those specific purposes easier to perform then the craft will become redundant.

I loved making mixed tapes. But these days its MP3s, iTunes and playlists. It is a question in many ways of efficiency versus inefficiency as Sheffield and my colleague Kang Hway Chuan note, but their was more romance in that inefficiency and some of the joy was in taking that time to craft a work. That is craft. Making a playlist on the whole is purely, no pun intended, instrumental, to have something to listen to on the bus to work or on the plane to a conference.

For friends I tend to give them one or two songs at a time or if I were to break copyright their selection from my hard drive. Even there though it can be a problem because the changes in technology means that some songs are locked and will not play on other computers and of course DRM means it is illegal to unlock them.

Here again we have a demonstration of the way craft is tied to technology. It is relatively simple to unlock DRM envelopes but that requires acquiring the knowledge and at a certain point knowledge acquisition about how to use computers becomes a disincentive for using them to replicate old forms, mixed tapes, or an incentive to develop new interests say computers or new forms of producing music.

The sort of folks who used to make mixed tapes, and have gained enough computer skills, probably make mash ups now.  A mash up is the mixing together of two different songs often across genres. The best know example is D J Dangermouse’s The Grey Album which mixes the Beatles White Album with Jay-Z’s The Black Album.

Other examples include “Stroke of Genie-us” and “Smells Like Teen Booty”, which respectively mash us Christina Aguilera with the Strokes and Nirvana with Destiny’s Child.

But this is still better than the other avenue that befell mixed tapes.

d.    Corporatisation
Like so many things that start out as an individual practice enjoyed as much for the process of creation as the object created mixed tapes also befell the fate or being commercialized or corporatized where the pleasure of creating was removed and the only the product remained; a product to be sold. In yet another conversation I had with friends about this paper a friend doing a book on Starbucks shared some of his work on that corporation’s role in industrializing the craft of the mixed tape. Don McKinnon who made mixed tapes for friends in his dorm during his time at Williams College, and then went on to do an MBA at Harvard, started a company called Hear Music in the early 1990s. Basically this company sold cd versions of mixed tapes. Starbucks looking to standardize everything – the death of craft – bought the business as a means of delivering a certain uniform product in its stores that could also be sold. So on the way to work you could pick up a latte and some cultural capital of a new music mix, which actually sells you your nostalgia for the mixed tape. Starbucks is your new friend who introduces you to such things.

Craft, at least in the form of mixed tapes, then can suffer two fates. One is to be relegated to a remembered form still technically possible, but in which the art has been replaced by a different technology and possibly led to a different sort of craft, but a craft still produced individually. The other is for craft to become a product manufactured en masse by corporations. One embodies human creativity and the other seeks to reduce us to consumers. One triggers nostalgia, but I would argue this is potentially a sort of utopian nostalgia, or nostalgia tempered by history, a looking back to look forward, to hold on to the human agency in crafting mixed tapes.

(I presented this paper at the Rethinking Labour: Labour, Affect and Material Culture Conference, Clinton Institute of American Studies, University College Dublin, April 18-20, 2008)