I’m no expert on mix tapes. I’ve made about three in my time. But every time I make one, I devote myself wholeheartedly to making it great. For me, it’s not just throwing together some songs I like and burning them onto a CD. I draft the arrangement, re-draft the arrangement, scour my Spotify playlists for songs I’m forgetting, discard songs that don’t fit and add new songs that I’ll probably discard later.
All this has taught me a fair bit about the dying art of making a great mixtape. So here’s are five things I’ve learned. If you’d like to be one of the few people who still make mixtapes, Please read on.
I think the most important virtue of a good mixtape is cohesion. I’m not saying that all the songs have to sound like they came from the same artist. But a good mix tape shouldn’t feel like a random assortment of songs that don’t fit together. However, that’s what a mix tape typically starts as. My most recent mix tape began as a hodge podge of Lorde, The Beach Boys, The Ronettes, The Beatles, and The Stone Roses.
Making a cohesive compilation of songs from different artists is difficult, to say the least. So how do you find songs that don’t all sound the same, but fit together nicely?
The key is to give yourself some kind of criteria. As Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations”.
What kind of criteria? Well, I used a decade, the 1980’s, specifically 80’s alternative. I figured that I could use songs by The Smiths, The Pixies, The Stone Roses, The Violent Femmes, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure, and whatever else I could find. Using a specific genre with an era as my criteria were useful because the songs were fairly similar stylistically.
Of course, there are several other kinds of criteria. Your criteria can be a theme, like “Songs for Summer” or “Music from my Favorite Movies”. It really doesn’t matter what criteria you use, as long as you stick to it.
Creating limitations for yourself is a great way to get started on a mixtape. After all, there are ninety-seven million songs in existence, so you need some way to narrow it down. But sometimes limitations can be too limiting. Especially when you find a song that would be perfect for your mixtape, but doesn’t fit your criteria.
So if you find a song that works for your mixtape, use it, even if it breaks the rules you’ve set for yourself. You should do so cautiously and purposefully though.
Although I was fairly well-versed in ‘80s music, I wasn’t well versed enough to find the songs I was looking for. Without an encyclopedic knowledge of that decade’s music, I couldn’t find music that fit the incredibly specific emotions I was trying to capture.
What song simultaneously encapsulates the feeling of uncertainty when you think you have feelings for someone, but simultaneously feel like getting involved with them was a mistake? The answer is Sonic Youth’s “Superstar” which wasn’t recorded in the 1980’s. What mostly instrumental song romanticizes the wonder of showing up in a brand new place and meeting new people? The answer is Brian Eno’s “On Some Faraway Beach” which also wasn’t recorded in the 1980’s. My musical knowledge was too scattered among decades to use only one decade as my source of music. So I eventually caved and began adding songs from the ‘70s and ‘90s. And the mixtape was better for it.
When making a mixtape, especially a romantic mix tape, it’s tempting to use songs that are a little too “on the nose”. What do I mean by “on the nose”?
"You're Beautiful" by James Blunt
"Baby I Love Your Way" by Peter Frampton
"My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion
"You're My Best Friend" by Queen
But I think using songs like these is downright lazy. It shows that you’ve put little to no effort into finding music that expresses how you feel. A mix tape should feel uniquely one’s own. And if a song sounds like anyone could’ve chosen it, I recommend you get rid of it.
It shouldn’t feel like the artists are speaking for you. It should feel like you’re speaking through the artists. If you use songs with a blatant message, your listener will probably feel like you’re shoving your feelings down their throat. Sometimes this means ignoring the song’s lyrics and just focusing on the feeling the song evokes. I’ve used “Oliver’s Army”, a satirical anti-war song, on a romantic mixtape. I’d have to try really hard to find a song with more unromantic lyrics. But the songs breezy tone and catchy melody made it perfect for what I was going for.
Aside from picking the right songs, properly structuring a mixtape is the best way to make it feel cohesive. Even if you’ve picked the right songs, the whole mixtape will feel disjointed and haphazard without structure.
So how the hell do you arrange a mixtape?
Well, there’s no one way to do it. The first method I devised was called “The Emotional Roller Coaster Method”
The inspiration for this approach came from John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity. In one scene he lays out his strategy for making a good compilation tape. “You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch but you don't want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” This is essentially what I did.
Here’s a breakdown of every song on the mix tape and their respective functions:
Killer: "American Girl" - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Up a Notch: "Modern Love "- David Bowie
Cooling off: "Somebody’s Baby" - Jackson Browne
Up-beat with a touch of Bittersweetness: "Show Me the Way" - Peter Frampton
Bittersweet: "Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam" -Nirvana
Sad: "Good Feeling" - The Violent Femmes
Slightly optimistic: "Satellite of Love" - Lou Reed
Even more Optimistic: "The Only Living Boy in New York" - Simon and Garfunkel
Climactic: "I Don’t Like Mondays" - The Boomtown Rats
Sweet, Hopeful Ending:"Ooh La La" -The Faces
As you can see my intent was to take the listener on a roller coaster of emotion, hence the name. I began with two upbeat songs then I had the mood get gradually more melancholy. Then I brought the mood up again, thus making the listener feel like they’d just gone on an emotional journey.
This is just an example of one way to structure a compilation. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Another powerful technique is to alternate between fast and slow songs. The result is a group of songs that are purposefully incompatible with one another which makes for an engaging listen. It’s a weird paradox that when you purposefully put songs with opposing tones and tempos together it feels cohesive. But if you do so consistently throughout the mixtape, the listener will catch on and the mixtape will feel cohesive.
I used to be a structure-nut. I would never deviate from the formula I’d created, but it wasn’t working on my most recent mixtape. Plugging the appropriate songs into their preordained spots felt manipulative and inauthentic. And that’s the unfortunate byproduct of sticking to any formula too closely. So I decided to apply a new, much less rigid structure.
"The Emotional Roller Coaster Method” was out. So I came up with a new approach: "The Soundtrack Approach”.
“The Soundtrack Approach” is, as the title suggests, more like a movie soundtrack than a traditional compilation tape. What the hell does that mean? Essentially, I came up with a movie in my head based on the early stages of my relationship with a special someone. I had roughly ten scenes in mind, including one or two montages. And each song on the mixtape corresponded with one of those scenes. This approach took effort. Lots of effort. But it led to a much less formulaic compilation.
It’s easy to stick with a formula once you’ve found one that works. But, using the same structure for mixtape after mixtape can stifle creativity. I think it’s important to challenge yourself and try something completely different. Like what if you made a mixtape based on the Five Stages of Grief or the stages of hell in Dante’s Inferno? Now that would be interesting.
A theory of mine is that the best art is made for the creator, not the audience. I think this applies to mix tapes as much as any other art form. Don’t worry about pleasing your listener. It doesn’t even matter if then know the songs that you put on the mixtape. My most successful mixtape featured only one or two songs that the listener knew.
Odds are, your listener will enjoy anything you make, as long as it comes from the heart. Sorry if that sounds schmaltzy, but it’s the truth. Agree with me or not, I think sharing music with people is one of the most profound ways that we can connect. That’s what made the mixtape relevant in the 1980’s and that’s what makes it relevant today. So just choose the songs that say who you are and what you feel. That’s just about the greatest gift you can give if you ask me.
I'd love to hear what you have to say.