The Art of the Online Mix Tape


This column is neither to praise nor bury the music streaming service Spotify, a hot topic with musical artist rights advocates and activists when it comes to royalties, one I hope to get to at another time. For all its issues like that and the poor sound quality and other occasional more minor irritants, its catalog of 20 million songs with 20,000 added daily are a gold mine for music lovers with broad tastes like mine. At about $10 a month, it’s a pretty sweet deal for consumers, especially if you listen on your phone as well as at home.

It’s ripe territory for one of my favorite activities as a music listener: making playlists. Or as we called them when the technology became available to do so in the mid-to-late 1970s with component cassette recorders becoming part of the home stereo system, mix tapes. The mix tape made for a lover from prospective to devoted to departed is an iconic cultural aspect of the era, and yeah, I made a few in my time for all three if you include the later advent of recordable compact discs. Even if you don’t own all the songs you’d like to put onto a disc “mix tape,” they’re likely available on iTunes.

But with so many songs and an unlimited amount you can compile into one playlist, Spotify opened up brand new possibilities and horizons for doing my own music programming. It’s something that I started doing in the early-to-mid 1970s as a college radio DJ, and influenced by having grown up on Top 40 AM hit radio at a time when genre didn’t matter. The best radio jocks on AM and later early free-form and progressive FM album radio were those who could come up with cool segues from one song to the next and mix and match them into a listening. These days radio playlists are programmed by research and stats, narrowed into tight formats, and as far as I’m concerned, largely unlistenable. But to me it’s not just listening to the final product that’s the reward but as much the process of putting one together. And its allied benefits.

Doing a great playlist is a process of musical discovery and rediscovery as one searches around looking for the ideal songs and comes upon treasures one might have missed before, new favorites and just how great songs you loves years and even decades ago and how great they still sound, sometimes better than ever. And then setting up segues that flow nicely, which brings one’s focus usually to the beat, groove or key of a song. Such close listening can become revelatory about musical performances and recordings and how it all mixes together into a great track. If one has the knack, you can go from, say, rock to country to soul in three songs and have it smoothly change styles yet never seem all the different.

And the ways one can cut the cake by the theme of the playlist or mix are only limited by your imagination. The Christmas music CDs I made a few years back and gave to friends and family were a hit. I like theming by eras and movements to keep favorites from my past to now readily available to listen to. “Rockin’ With The Brits” gleans British rock highlights from the mid-1960s into the early ‘70s. “My Acid Rock Flashback in the Garage” pulls mainly from America in the same timeframe. As I was writing this column, I got the idea for one in which I can gather decades of great R&B music: “Soul Power.”

“Visions of Bob” indulges my Dylan fetish with a good 100 or so covers of his songs by a vast range of artists, and avoids the obviously well-known ones to display both how amazing and deep his catalog is plus all the many ways that great singers and artists can render his compositions. “Berry Good Covers,” which is Chuck Berry songs by others, may be narrower in scope and have less numbers to choose from, but I marvel at how the same song can be masterful yet different a number of times over the list. And in doing both, I came to appreciate more than ever the Washington, D.C., are blues band The Nighthawks that I first heard in 1976 and remain active today.

And playlists are never done. You can add tracks, switch ‘em around, pull some that maybe don’t work. Refining just adds to my fun. Which brings me to the biggest benefit I find with playlists: It keeps my relationship with music active and involved, and ultimately very much alive. And then when I get one to its initial completion, I can just sit back and listen to one treasure after another that never fail to give me pleasure.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2014

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