Can playlists ever replace mixtapes?

From 2001 to 2004, I created one mixtape every two months, compiling the best of the music I had been listening to at the time. The idea, inspired by a Cameron Crowe interview, was to make a diary in music that you can look back on years down the line, and be transported back to the period of your life through the songs you were listening to. And it’s fun listening, and you can share with friends, etc. My rules were pretty basic: I would pull together 10 songs from each month and load them on to one 80 minute CD. I usually started with an audio or comedy clip and bisected the mix with another to mark the start of the second month.

I gave each mix an appropriate title, loaded with emotional significance for me and nobody else, and put together cover art from magazine clippings or printed images from the Internet. I did this without fail for 36 months, 18 mixes. I stopped in 2004, for reasons I don’t quite remember, except it coincided with a breakup and my first iPod. I suspect it mostly had to do with the latter. It was the beginning of the age of the MP3 and the playlist, and the death of the CD.

Suddenly, it seemed unnecessarily time-consuming and quaint to cobble together 20 songs on a piece of plastic with finite space and a tendency to get lost or scratched.

Since then, the mixes sat in a shoebox in my closet for years, taken out only during moves, with only two or three in a car CD wallet for regular listening. Soon, not only was I not making CDs, I wasn’t even listening to them.

Then I had an aforementioned computer crash, and I stumbled across a 2009 email from a good friend, asking me to send him some of the old mixes. It suddenly struck me as completely absurd that I never imported them to my computer, so during nights I started doing just that, a few at a time. And I started listening to them.

I’m now 34, and when I was making the mix CDs I was in my early 20s. The span of time covered my slovenly life immediately after graduating college, followed by my grudging relocation to Phoenix where I would take my first grownup job, help my family through a crisis, and then ultimately relocate to Portland, OR to fritter away the rest of my early 20s. As this stage is for most people, it was an emotionally charged period. I found the old CDs surprisingly affecting.

Each one brought me immediately back to the months it represents, not only my life at the time, but also how I felt about the music. Not all of the songs, but many of them, meant so much to me at the time. I remember poring over selections, trying to decide between two tracks by the same artist, or shuffling the order around until it was perfect. I used this horrible program called TOAST for the early iMac, with an external CD burner. I don’t think you could even save the playlists as you set them up to burn. I would inkjet images onto copy paper and cut them out to fit slim jewel cases. Each one took me hours, and the same product would take me a fraction of the time to whip up for Spotify, 8 Tracks or iTunes now, across devices, backed up in the cloud, shared in multiple venues with friends or the public.

But still, there was something about those CDs. Something ritualistic and monk-like, as best as I can describe it. The outcomes were so regimented and specific, mathematic and tangible. Each one is like a tick of a clock’s hand.

I found it surprising how much my musical tastes changed over time, and how my circumstances and geographic location seemed to heavily influence the content. The depth of the time in Phoenix produced these poppy, somewhat agro mixes, with Eminem and Ludacris and System of a Down. Once I hit Portland it was almost immediately moody indie rock and post rock. All Death Cab for Cutie, Yo La Tengo, Belle and Sebastian.

That same ritualistic production also made them flawed. Some months I struggled for fresh content. The whims of the moment led to some questionable inclusions that I would soon find myself hating.

I still create mixes, or playlists, for others and myself. I find them far superior to the most of the ones from the shoebox. In part, I just have more and better music at my disposal. The speed and ease of editing makes them more complete, fluid, and better documented with track info all accounted for. Don’t get me wrong, some of the shoebox CDs are absolutes masterpieces that hold up very well. But generally speaking, I can now create a better playlist in minutes than I used to be able to in hours. For that matter, I have online access to millions of people who can do it for me. Or if I’m feeling really uninspired, an algorithm.

But is it a replacement? An improvement? I almost never (ok never) say things were better in the past in relation to technology, because I just find it to be an illusory perspective. But in some aspects, to some degree just out of my grasp, those mixes burned to CD have superior value. Not quality, but value.

Part of it I think is related to the way constraints force creativity. Mix tapes and CDs forced us to make the hard choices. What leads? What ends? What stays? What goes? That, and once it’s on tape or laser, it’s there for good. No George Lucas treatments. It’s a snapshot, burned into IRL media for life. But finally, looking back on those 18 mixes, I can’t shake the feeling that I loved the music at my disposal more then than I do now. I cherished each song and album. I would put them on at certain times and wait for that one moment that would send chills up my spine.

I still firmly believe that there is more and better music available to the masses by miles in the digital age. I have at my fingertips more amazing artists in a year than I would experience in a decade back then. And maybe it’s just that I was in my 20s and everything meant more to me then. But there’s a sense of tender curating that has faded to some extent with the loss of physical media storage.

Would I trade Spotify for TOAST-burned CD-Rs? Not a chance in hell. But there’s a value to the latter that I don’t think all the access and lightning-fast sharing in the world can replicate. At least, I don’t think it has for me just yet. Then again, I did import all of the shoebox CDs to my computer, zipped up the XML files, and emailed the whole bundle to that same friend. Maybe I’ll start the bimonthly ritual up again, on Spotify. In fact, I could just take the tracklist directly my stats from each month. That will be a lot easier, right?