On mixtapes

Some people think that the mixtape died with the advent of the MP3. Now, apparently, all we do is shuffle our libraries, and a coherent musical narrative is not important. The amazing choice of being able to download almost anything, and then being able to listen to whatever you have in whatever way you want, has killed the importance of a track listing, or so conventional wisdom goes.

Of course, this isn’t true. Such vast choice makes the existence of a worthwhile filter on the music we hear more important than ever before, and while artificial intelligence is making some strides (see Pandora, Last.fm, and iTunes Genius), the best filters remain human — musicians, critics, or DJs whose opinions you respect, as well as your friends. And, most often, these filters come in the form of playlists.

Music blogs are the most obvious filters of this kind, and while some may balk at calling them examples of musical narratives, I think it’s totally warranted. Here the narrative isn’t the same as an album, of course, but it is an example of a listener’s path through current or past music. One can hear the development of authors reading through theirarchives or following their blog’s updates. This is the modern analog of asking friends what they’ve been into lately, and MP3 attachments and podcasts extend it to the modern analog of coming over and hearing what’s on his stereo (or borrowing a disc). This is not the traditional kind of narrative, like a mixtape would be, but it’s wildly popular and is an active kind of listening in sharp contrast to shuffle.

The venerable mixtape itself has not died either, of course, though now it’s sometimes not physical. But the main purpose of the mixtape was for a friend to assemble a kind of album and share that listing of tracks with you, in a way that played all of them in sequence, hearing connections between disparate songs that make the playlist more than a sum of its parts. Muxtape (muxtape.com) was a wildly popular service that did just this — it allowed users to upload tracks from their own libraries, arrange them in a clean and simple interface, and then gave them a link they could send friends so they could listen to the whole tape right there on the page.

Of course, this was so wildly popular that the RIAA killed it, but the Internet responded in the way the Internet knows best — by decentralizing it. Opentape (opentape.fm) provides software, free for download, that can exactly replicate Muxtape’s functionality on your own web server.

So we see that meaningful arrangement of music is not at all dying because of the influence of new technology. Rather, new technology is enabling these narrative arcs to travel in novel, more distributed, and more personal ways. The mixtape is not dead.