Local Current Blog

The magic of mixtapes: Why those reels keep spinning even in the online era

The mixtape exchange at Dead Media. Photos by Jay Gabler/MPR.

Sharing music has never been easier than it is in the digital era — but for now, many music fans are clinging tenaciously to their handmade mixtapes.

“It’s the exclusivity, the physical object, the artwork,” says Simon Brooks of Minneapolis record store Dead Media. “You can hold it, it degrades. It’s not like an MP3 that will last forever.”

Dead Media hosts an ongoing, informal mixtape exchange. “We just had a bunch of tapes laying around that people made in high school for their friends or had in their collection,” says Brooks.

“We started putting them up on the wall near the door,” Brooks continues, “with a sign: take one, leave one. Slowly it’s become a thing. You forget about it, then you look back and five or six tapes have come and gone. Cool, weird stuff shows up.”

The spread of cassette tapes in the 1970s enabled a uniquely personal sort of mix-making: you could select a customized set of songs and record them onto a tape that you could give to a friend. By the ‘80s, cassette recorders were ubiquitous, and every music fan could be his or her own DJ.

My dad is an avid music fan, and he taught me how to make elaborate mixes using his reel-to-reel tape player. Sourcing his playlists from records, CDs, and tapes, he’d use a pair of microphones to host multi-hour mixes for his friends — creating reel-to-reel masters that he’d then use to make copies on cassette.

Libby Cudmore’s new novel The Big Rewind, a murder mystery that turns on the contents of a mixtape, is the latest in a long line of books and movies (High Fidelity, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and so on) that have enshrined the mixtape as the ne plus ultra of music-geek personal expression, especially between potential romantic partners.

“Music is, for so many people, not only a way to understand how they’re feeling at that moment, but can illustrate how they might feel for somebody else,” says Cudmore. “It taps into emotions that sometimes we can’t quite figure out for ourselves. So to give somebody a mix is like giving them a love letter. It’s saying, ‘This is how I feel about you, and I can’t even say it myself, so somebody else has to.’”

Mixtapes — and their slightly more contemporary counterparts, mix CDs — aren’t just about facilitating hookups, though.

“One of my friends got into a bad car accident,” remembers Toni Lindgren, a local guitarist who was recommended to me for her mix-making skills. “When she was coming out of the hospital we were giving her a bunch of feel-good presents. I made a mix for her. As she was coming out of it — she had a traumatic brain injury, so it was like getting to know each other again — having a mix with songs we used to listen to together became a starting point for bringing that back.”

Certainly, mixtapes never did much for me in the romance department. (Once, I made a set of five mixtapes, put them in a coffee can, and mailed them to a woman I had a crush on. She then told me her boyfriend asked her not to talk to me anymore.) I was always more likely to make mixes for family members or friends, both as gifts and because I was hoping to inspire reciprocation.

Abbie Gobeli, a University of Minnesota graduate who just moved to Seattle, has started making a mix a day both to chronicle her first year in her adopted city and to share some of her favorite music with her friends. She’s not making tapes, though — her “Resonance 365” project is entirely on Spotify.

“I tend to soundtrack my mood and whatever’s going on in my daily life,” she says, “so I decided to make a challenge for myself to make a different playlist every day.”

The fact that her mixes are online means that Gobeli can share each mix with all of her friends — instantly. “I’ll watch on Spotify to see who’s listening to what, and I’ll see a lot of people digging into different playlists. I’ve been getting nothing but good feedback, and even some cool suggestions for playlists.”

I still have a lot of my old mixtapes, and my dad’s — with titles like “Jesse’s Cool College Tapes,” “The BEST Music You’ve NEVER Heard,” and even (a tape Dad made for our parish priest) “Father Jerry’s Music Jubilee.” Each tape captures a moment in time.

Artwork, of course, is key to the making of a really special mixtape. Lindgren is particularly known for drawing on her mix CDs and their sleeves. “I just go for it” with Sharpies, she says. You can’t make custom artwork for playlists on most music services — though that’s bound to change as mixtapes get left farther and farther behind.

Or will they? Vinyl is surging, and cassettes are holding their own as a niche format for superfans. This year, the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival teased its lineup with a special mixtape sent to early-bird ticket buyers.

Still, it didn’t take long for the tape to be digitized; a SoundCloud post of the tape, by local fan Kyle Matteson, was shared far and wide by people who didn’t have the tapes — or who did, but lacked players. The convenience of streaming was once again undeniable.

Right now, music fans don’t need to chose. Gobeli, for example, loves sharing mixtapes as well as online playlists. “Mixtapes are more personal. It’s this tangible thing, this gift you’re going to give. It’s like, ‘Here it is! Hope you like it!’ It’s that awkward Christmas-gift moment.”

“When you hand someone something, there is an urgency to listen to it,” says Cudmore. “I need to put this in my car CD player, I need to go home and listen to this right now! Those songs get inside you, and you can’t stop thinking about them.”

Though the stakes aren’t quite as high as they are in Cudmore’s fictional murder investigation, the air of mystery and intimacy is still what appeals to people who participate in the Dead Media tape exchange.

“A tape is something exclusive,” says Brooks. “You’re the only one that has one, or maybe you and a couple of friends. You can hold it, look at the art, pass it around to people. There’s a lot of power in that.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, and appears in the May print edition of The Growler.