I was listening to some old music from my youth on Pandora the other day, which got me thinking about the lost art of the mix tape.

When I was a teenager in the 80’s, mix tapes were a pretty popular phenomenon. The compact cassette had become more accessible along with the devices to play them. We made them for ourselves so that we could enjoy all of our favorite songs on the go with our cutting edge Sony Walkman (our iPods). We made them for friends (our file sharing). If we were DJs, we made them to hand out in hopes of fame (our YouTube). But the ultimate use for a mix tape was to impress someone with whom you were romantically involved with or interested in – or at least that is what we thought at the time.

This sort of mix tape, wasn’t just about compiling a playlist, it was a labor of love.  You had to choose the right songs to convey your message. The 2000 film, High Fidelity is riddled with tongue in cheek “rules” for the perfect mix tape. John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, sums it up with the following:

“…the making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules…”

Making a mix tape was no small task. You couldn’t just download the songs from iTunes or some free sharing site. You had to break out actual vinyl records. You chose the tracks carefully, organized them for the “recording session”. If you couldn’t afford the record, you sat by the radio all day waiting to catch it and hit record on your tape deck. If you really wanted to take it over the top, you made your own case insert with hand drawn art and a meticulously lettered song list. You might even make custom labels or decorate the tape itself. The point is, the mix tape was hours of work and days of thinking and planning to make something that, whether positively or negatively received, would most certainly be noticed.

In today’s world of instant gratification – everything you want, when you want it; there is no room for the mix tapes of yore. Our entire lives are now the ultimate mix tape. Not just of music, but video, poetry, technology, hobbies and anything else you can wish for, desire or imagine – all at your fingertips, a la carte and mostly free (or at least fairly affordable). It makes it really hard to be noticed, whether a love-sick teenager, a professional seeking the attention of potential employers, or a business owner trying to win customers.

Or at least that might be the conclusion you draw at first glance. Don’t go all Emo on me and lock yourself in your room just yet. You see, the advantage of this “mix tape life” is that we have boundless resources at our disposal. This accessibility transforms us from using other peoples’ music and words to producing our own music and words. The cost of entry has been lowered to the point where everyday people can produce whatever they like. Want to write a book?  Self-publish it (lulu, Smashwords). Want to create a video?  Use your phone and broadcast it (YouTube, Vimeo). Want to make a mobile app?  Program it (PhoneGap, Titanium).

The mix tape manifested at the dawn of this, our modern era of media redistribution. It came along with the VHS, Photocopiers and other advancements of the time. All at once, regular people could start producing their own media; albeit in a cruder fashion than their professional contemporaries. Today we have the world at our fingertips and you will be hard pressed to tell the difference between  “amateur” and “pro” media efforts. Sure, that means there is more out there to compete with, but the trade off is so worth it…whatever you can dream up, you can build.

Though our mix tapes are long gone, their spirit lives on in this new era of open source media. Keep dreaming, keep building – if you are earnest about your work, you’re bound to build amazing things. Who knows, you might even impress your next boss, client or that special someone – long live the mix tape!

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