I Miss Making CD Mixtapes and Discovering Music

I Miss Making CD Mixtapes and Discovering Music
Graphic: Elena Scotti/Gizmodo

I can’t even remember the last time I actually held a CD mixtape, much less played one. But there’s a CD wallet kicking around in storage that’s filled with unassuming silver discs doodled on with short titles and dates, part 1s, part 2s, and “greatest hits.”

I’ve been making “mixtapes” in some form or another for most of my life, even though whatever’s left of the compact disc era is collecting dust in my basement somewhere. My earliest memory of curated track compilations was using actual tapes to rip my favourite tracks from the radio. Lying on the floor next to the stereo as a kid, I’d wait for hours to catch the earliest notes on a track I liked before slamming the record button on the boombox to burn it to a blank cassette tape. Considering my tastes at the time (it was the 90s, man), it was probably LFO, Duncan Sheik, B*Witched, and most certainly, something off Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope. The excitement of ripping a decent version of a track without a DJ interjection or commercial interruption was exhilarating. Given a good one, I could listen to the track over and over again as many times as I’d like, even though that would require a manual rewind. CD mixtapes, on the other hand, were a game-changer.

CD-R (compact disc-recordable) was popularised in the late ’90s and early-2000s as a way to share music on the cheap. Compared to studio albums, you could get a stack of blank CD-Rs for next to nothing. (Of course, everyone was paying for their music and not at all using Napster or Limewire to swap tracks or entire discographies over the World Wide Web.) While an inexpensive way to access new music, CD-Rs were also a one-time use format that held a relatively small selection of songs (equivalent to a standard album’s worth of music). So once you burned it, that was it.

The fact that CD-Rs were limited by the number of tracks you could store on each disc wasn’t too much of an issue, initially — if you didn’t mind hauling your collection with you whereever you needed to go. Typically, you’d pack these either in a CD “wallet” with flimsy plastic sleeves for optimum storage, or you could risk potentially scratching a few by attempting to stack them together in a standard plastic jewel case. This was not advisable.

That was another thing about CDs generally: They were fairly easy to damage. The CDs I most cared about preserving were always handled like a delicate photograph: I slipped it out of its sleeve carefully, fingers pinching the centre and outermost rings so as not to touch the underside of the disc itself and smudge or scratch it.

I can’t remember exactly what age I was when I figured out that you could burn music to a blank CD. I can’t even recall the first song I burned to a blank disc, but I do have vivid memories of sitting in a leather chair in front of our family computer from middle school forward painstakingly compiling my own tracks lists. Over time, those mixtapes would find a home in the centre console or glove compartment of my first car, a little red two-seater that barely sat four if you could make yourself a pretzel in the back. Like time capsules of specific music genres of a given year, their most coherent through-line would often be mood. I had a mix with tracks like Lil’ Kim’s “The Jump Off” and Tweet’s “Oops” when I felt like testing the limitations of my car’s abysmal speaker system; other mixtapes had tracks from Elliott Smith, Nine Inch Nails, or Iron & Wine for when I felt, well, like a teen.

Occasionally some mixtapes would have some track crossover, but more often, each was a compilation of songs I’d most recently discovered. Like getting a perfect cassette tape to rip a beloved track pre-CD-R, uncovering rare recordings and hidden tracks (remember those?) was thrilling.

That’s probably the thing I miss most about mix CDs that doesn’t really translate to the playlists I now create in the cloud: They were so often dictated by discovery. Back in middle school, in those earliest days of mix CDs, I found music either through the recommendation of friends, channels like the radio and TV, or in the CD aisles of Circuit City. Magazines and online forums became an obsessive source of music literacy later on, as did live shows with openers and tour guests that were newer to the music scene. Discover Weekly playlists and Apple Music recommendations just don’t offer the same level of gratification for uncovering new music that other avenues of discovery once did. Finding new music once felt like a massive research undertaking — you’d only get the good stuff if you dug deep. But now, even obscure artists and recordings are served to me weekly thanks to powerful algorithms that draw from my past listening habits. Most of the time, the algorithms do a decent job. But the process of finding new music I enjoy feels far less rewarding these days.

Plus, nothing can match the feeling of getting a perfect mixtape from someone else. Dire Straits will forever be inextricably linked in my brain to my high school boyfriend whose taste in music was not especially great but whose mixtape gestures I cherished — thanks to a single CD I probably played hundreds of times over. Part of the art of crafting the perfect mix CD for somebody else was curating its tracklist not only around what you liked, but what you thought they might like. Taken together with the physical disc you were gifted, it made mix CDs feel far more intimate than a shared playlist on Spotify.

But CDs were fated to be outmoded, of course. MP3 players had been around for years before Apple’s iPod arrived on the scene in 2001. Fast and packing up to 1,000 “CD-quality songs” into a pocket design, the gadget was destined to revolutionise music storage. Because at some point, there were only so many albums or mixtapes you even wanted to hear anymore enough to drag them around with you wherever you went. And these are the perks of the impossibly miniature computers we carry everywhere now.

I still enjoy making digital playlists, of course, and I listen to them in much the same way as I did when I carted around a CD booklet: in my car, on the go, and when puttering around the house. But the car I own now has a touchscreen computer in place of where a CD player might once have been, and my music is played through my iPhone or, sometimes, just the radio. Occasionally I’ll hear a track on one of the stations that plays what I’m sure can now be qualified as “older hits” that jogs my mixtape memory. It might’ve even been burned onto a CD that’s still taking up space in a box somewhere in my home.