Music Within Limits

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I read a Twitter thread recently about the preferred format for mix “tapes” nowadays. CDs are still popular, although Spotify links are catching up. A few people compile them as zip files or use USB drives. I would like to think there are some old geezers out there who still use tape; perhaps they aren’t connected to the Internet to say so.

I have written here before about the 8-track recorder I bought in high school, so the first mix tapes I ever made were in that format. When I got to college, I made a few party mixes on reel tapes in the production rooms of radio stations. I graduated to cassettes shortly after I graduated from college, and they were my medium of choice for car tapes until the early 00s, when I got a CD burner. But I kept playing tapes until 2012, when the car with the tape deck went to the big salvage yard in the sky.

I burned a CD just this morning, some tunes for a trip we’re getting ready to take. I burn as MP3s, which means a single CD can hold several hours of music. (Burning standard CD files limits a disc to 80 minutes.) As I was selecting tunes for the CD, I kept thinking, “What else could I put on here? There’s certainly room for more.” If I were putting them into a zip file or USB drive, there would be even more room. A Spotify playlist is theoretically limitless.

That feels like it could be a problem.

A mix begins with a goal. What do I want this mix to do? If you’re sending one to a girl (and I am guessing that many of the male geeks reading this post have done it, or considered it), you want to express yourself, tell her who you are, and create a mood. For a road trip, you want to create a different mood, one that enhances the experience of travel in whatever way you choose. Or maybe you’re making a mix for your own amusement (“the greatest hits by artists whose names begin with A”), or on a particular theme (“best party hits from college”). What belongs, or best fits the theme?

More importantly, what doesn’t? A C-90 cassette or an 80-minute blank CD requires you to make choices. Does this song contribute to the mood, or the theme? Is it better for that purpose than some other song I am considering? I’d argue that a cassette or CD mix you make for somebody will say more about you as a person than a mix you send as a Spotify list because of the paring and tweaking you have to do to make it right within a physical limit. It also says something about how you regard the person you’re giving it to. You care enough to spend real time, effort, and thought on them. You don’t just browse a list and hit “add” a few times.

Years ago, I heard a party DJ say something similar. He wondered whether there’s really an advantage in being able to take thousands of songs to a party digitally instead being confined to what fits in a crate of vinyl or CDs. As in making a mix, choices are necessary. Is this a record I need, one I can’t imagine the party without? If so, it goes in the crate. If not, it can stay home. True, the DJ with 10,000 songs is likely to have more latitude on those occasions when it’s helpful, or be better able to play some guest’s request, but does that automatically mean he’ll provide a better party in the long run than the DJ who’s crated up a couple of hundred tried-and-true dance floor monsters?

Our culture frowns upon limits. We equate freedom with having whatever we want, as much as we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. But “unlimited” is not automatically better. For an artist of the mix, acceptance of limits can enhance the work.

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2 responses

  1. David C Armillei | Reply

    The same argument you are making with respect to limits in the context of a mix applies equally to albums themselves. The 22 minutes/max per side of the traditional LP forced artists to make choices regarding content, fit, and theme that–absent recourse to the sometimes dreaded “double album”–forced them to express themselves in relatively pithy ways. On the whole, I’d suggest that this physically-imposed filter led to better, tighter, more focused albums.

    In contrast, with the demise of CDs (which themselves were bloated and led to albums approaching 80 minutes), some artists have used the “freedom” that MP3s and streaming has provided to “craft” lengthy, unwieldy opuses. For example, Migos–one of the most popular rap groups around–just released an album (“Culture II”) whose 24 tracks!! span more than 1 hour and 45 minutes!!!! Not only does no one have time for this (which is in many ways a play to increase the number of streams and, hence, the album’s Billboard position), the sheer length of these exhausting releases practically screams “NO QUALITY CONTROL” in blinking lights.

    Creativity within physical limitations spans the best results, always.

    1. This is an excellent point about vinyl, David, and one I wish I had made in this post. I can’t tell you the number of CDs I own that get fuzzy long about track 11 and there are still three or four tracks to go. And there are precious few double vinyl albums that didn’t suffer from the same problem.

      It’s hard to be succinct. Churchill said something like, “If you want a 10-minute speech, I can be ready in a week. If you want 20 minutes, give me three days. If you want me to talk for an hour, I’m ready now.”

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