The other thing about cassette tapes, apart from their portability, is that they were social: a cheap and cheerful way of sharing your favourite music with a friend; a mix to evoke a mood; a carefully curated collection of your innermost obsessions; a reflection of the zeitgeist. They made good presents, too. When you didn’t have much money, they represented a gift of time and effort. (Of course, sometimes they weren’t social at all: just something for you to put in your Walkman and shut out the world.)
The art of the compilation was a physical act and it was hard work. You had to line up your collection of records, ponder the inclusion of each track carefully, or synchronise the pause button with the radio at just the right time. The Proclaimers? In or out? Bowie? In, obviously. The one you just heard on Sunday’s Radio 1 chart show? Out. (The Sunday chart show is now gone, as well. It’s on Fridays.)
You had to organise everyone else to be quiet and keep out of your way, so you didn’t have your little brother barging through the door at a critical crescendo, or your mum shouting for you to come and wash the dishes while the violins wept.
You had to get the tracks in the right order, too, depending on what intended effect you were attempting to induce in the recipient.
Was this a declaration of love, or simply a demonstration of your irreducible coolness when it came to good taste in music? Did this need to be a killer tape for the best birthday party ever, or was this simply about fun stuff you liked and wanted your friends to enjoy, too?
Of course, the intended effect might not be the actual effect.
The recipient might scan the tracks and their order for hidden messages, and sometimes find one that wasn’t actually there. “If she’s included Sign your name across my heart that MUST mean she wants to marry me.”
The art of the mixtape evolved into making a mix CD, then into assembling an iPod playlist, then into Spotify.
But making a mixtape for someone will always feel a lot more special than just sending a link. There was love involved, as well as all that hard work.
If the mixtape lives on in your heart, you can give your tapes a second life at Mixtape Fan Club, where they aim to “secure a future for the art and philosophy of hometaping”. So the mixtape’s not quite dead yet. Not quite.