Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Deconstructing The Mix CD

Monica Eng deconstructs the concept of the mix CD in Sunday's Tribune.

(In it she quotes liberally from Chuck Klosterman's "Sex, Drugs And Cocoa Puffs." The odd thing is that I just so happen to be reading that very book right now, and yesterday read that very chapter. Well, as Klosterman would say ... ANYWAY)

Her point is that the mix CD is not merely a change in technology from the mix tape, but a complete change in its essence -- and not a change for the better.
For many of us who grew up making mix tapes for working out, capturing the vibe of a semester, telling a pal what we're listening to, cleaning the house, studying, preparing for a night out, accompanying a road trip and documenting stages of a relationship -- technology has really changed things. It's altered the way we interact with, organize, give and receive music compilations -- and, more important, the way we view our relationships with those who are doing the giving and receiving.

A lot of people, including [Nick] Hornby, Cameron Crowe and Sarah Vowell, have offered meditations on the art and mystery of the mix tape, but few have mined the beguiling new twists of its easier sister: the mix CD.

"When you used to make mix tapes, the most standard situation was a guy who is friends with a girl and he's trying to indicate that he's actually in love with her but he can't say it," Klosterman explained without actually confessing he was that guy. "One way he could do it was to put a song in on the mix that wasn't on the track listing so that when the girl was sitting there and listening to the whole thing [she would discover it]. Because people would listen to mix cassettes in their totality, so the sequencing was really important and it was this handmade thing and could only exist in this manner. Now if that boy gives a girl a mix CD the first thing she's going to do is listen to the first five seconds of every song to see which songs she knows or already has.

"I mean that's they way people listen to store-bought CDs, which is why the album is dying. Now you just sample the record in bits and pieces and decide that I like track five, six and 11, and so it really is a lot less romantic. You are really giving somebody something that essentially is a product."
The article put me in mind of a couple of things -- both related to my recent experience with a CD swap.

The first is that Eng's contention that easy=cavalier for mix CDs is almost certainly true -- at least in some cases. There's no question that one of the CDs I received took no more time to put together than to click the burn button on iTunes.

The second is that I appear to have a different idea of what the "mix" means in mix CD (or mix tape, for that matter). For me, a good chunk of the fun of making (and listening to) a mix CD is that the songs are literally mixed -- i.e., one song segues into and overlaps the next. This is how I've made mix tapes & CDs since 1987.

The technology certainly has changed since then -- back in the day I would use a mixer and two turntables, recording on a tapedeck. That morphed into including a CD player into the mix, then two CD players, then a CD burner instead of a tapedeck. Eventually a computer with a CD burner and mixing software turned the whole process into its current all-digital format. This makes the process quite a bit more precise and a bit more clinical than the on-the-fly methods of the past -- but it does have its own charms (and yes, it is quite a bit easier).

It does require, though, some consideration of order as well as mere content. Hopefully the fact that every track has a small (or large) bit of the prior and subsequent tracks on it will make it less attractive to bounce around the way Klosterman describes, as well as make it less attractive to just rip the CD to iTunes and throw the songs (or some of the songs) into some other playlist.

Part of the value of a real mix CD comes from the context, and complete value only comes from listening the same way you would to a mix tape.


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