Radio was my friend, music stores my playground, yet for the briefest of moments, I was the ‘go-to’ mixtape master, operating the not-for-profit Greentree Records.
MUSIC = LIFE! has been my motto for as long as I can remember. Initially captivated by the allure of Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl and constant wonderment as to how Starship really built the city, it was ultimately the introduction of the Compact Audio Cassette that would change everything.
No, dear reader, I wasn’t there in 1963 as Phillips unveiled this culturally revolutionary medium. It would be almost a quarter of a century later, at the age of 7, that the cassette would enter my life through a now nostalgic double cassette boom box. While the mid-to-late 80s could be reflected upon as the Age of Aquarius for the Phillips/Sony collaborated Compact Disc, the cassette still reigned supreme, outselling both the Vinyl record and the Compact Disc. Much of its success was due to the lower cost of pre-recorded music and portability, thanks to Sony’s Walkman and in-car stereo systems. However, the determining factor of success was one’s ability to record and then share the music they loved. Yes, I know you share your Spotify playlists, but the creation of a mixtape is a labour of love. Let me explain!
On a cloudy Saturday in May, too cold for me to venture outside, or so my overprotective mother said, the light filtered brightly through my curtains as I lay on my bed captivated by the music, perusing the liner notes and the mountain of cassettes that I planned to listen to that day. That is until the moment when I would inevitably decide to swap a tape out for another or replay Icehouse’s Man Of Colours for the umpteenth time. However, on this day, having just listened to The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine soundtrack and Abba’s Arrival, I felt compelled to listen to only a select song from each album. Yellow Submarine is, of course, the only truly noteworthy song for a seven-year-old, on that particular Beatles album, for All You Need Is Love was just a little too mushy. Despite Arrival having so many hits to choose from, I found myself addicted to When I Kissed The Teacher. Yes, I may have had a crush on my third-grade teacher, but that is a story for another time.
Placing The Beatles cassette in deck 1, Abba in deck 2, I was ready. No cueing was necessary as both songs are the lead tracks for their respective albums. As I bopped away, all the while singing the chorus We All Live In A Yellow Submarine, I rolled towards the bedside table as the song was reaching its end so that I could pause deck 1 and play deck 2. The move was seamless and showed a young mixtape master in the making. That was until ABBA’s Arrival tape leader crossed the tape head, making its now iconic bleep-bloop-bleep noise. For a split second, I was taken out of the moment and was forever determined to never allow another bleep or bloop to hinder my listening experience. As the day progressed, I got better at cueing up songs. Fast forwarding and rewinding became second nature while I prepped one tape as the other played, hoping that when I pressed play, the tape was positioned in just the right place. I’d often get close, but the blending of songs reminded me of the radio disc jockey style where the music never stopped.
Unfortunately, as these mixes weren’t permanent, I desperately needed a blank cassette. Somehow, yet my ageing mind fails me, I had acquired a blank cassette. My memory is erased, blank if you will, all that remains is the ironic low-level tape hiss, for my mind was never upgraded to support Dolby’s Noise Reduction. Nevertheless, I recall being fascinated by the record button on the cassette deck, but my mother had told me never to touch it. Well, armed with a blank audio cassette, that was all the permission I needed to press that button. However, nothing happened. The button appeared to be broken as it wouldn’t depress. Then, as if struck by lightning, I realised the blank cassette was still in my hand and I was attempting to record over a prerecorded cassette. My beloved Arrival no less. Thankfully, with all commercial prerecorded cassettes, the write tab was removed thereby preventing the average consumer from accidentally recording sounds of silence. Although, just between you and me, if you put some good old sticky tape over the left and right holes at the top of a cassette, you can record over absolutely anything.
With the blank cassette in deck 2, as that was the only deck with recording capabilities, I turned the dial to my favourite radio station at the time; Sydney’s 2Day FM. I would occasionally move the dial to the Triple M or 2JJJ (later, Triple J), but knowing my mother wouldn’t approve of their diverse selections, I had to select these stations only when she wasn’t within earshot.
On this particular Saturday, I sat for what seemed to be hours waiting for the songs to play on the radio that I wanted to record. It was enthralling and equally tedious. Although, the process did teach me how some songs go well together, while other combinations would be so obscure that both songs would lose any sense of musicality that they previously had. You see, algorithms weren’t used back in the day, or if they were they were extremely basic. A radio playlist was often attributed to the likes of the host or the overall style of the radio station. Just as 2Day FM was unlikely to ever play Metallica, Triple M would never play Mariah Carey. The challenge, of course, was patiently perusing radio stations, hoping to find a song worthy of recording. Of course, you had to be diligent dialling the station in, otherwise, you’d end up with a lacklustre recording if the signal wasn’t perfect. You may think this could have been done digitally, but alas there was only a manual dial.
Despite all the effort to listen to music, time didn’t seem to pass us by as quickly as it does in the modern era. Multi-tasking wasn’t a thing, nor was the distraction of the Internet. Music existed in the foreground, not the background. We listened to the music. We perused the liner notes, all the time looking forward to the next time we would visit the local record store. Perhaps most captivating, however, was watching the tape reels dance in tandem as the music played. Watching the tape unspool from left to right as I recorded 30 minutes of music on each side was strangely gratifying. It became more so as the tapes expanded to runtimes of 90 and 120 minutes. While longer runtimes were of interest, tapes with these extended runtimes were increasingly susceptible to stretching and tangling on dirty tape heads.
Yes, you had to clean the cassette decks as the metal compound, coating the tape’s polyester film, would flake off over time and reduce the quality of sound, while also clogging the rollers. A cotton bud would do, with a little isopropyl alcohol, but you had to be sure not to leave any cotton residue on the guide rollers or tape heads. Later, I would obtain a cleaning cassette that was a semi-automatic solution. A little of the aforementioned alcohol, and playback of the specialised cleaning tape for approximately 30 seconds, would leave the tape heads looking their best and sounding less concealed than before. See, as I mentioned earlier, the compact audio cassette was really a labour of love and this cleaning process would become a weekly activity that I thoroughly enjoyed. Subsequently, due to this obsessive cleaning routine, I never experienced the unravelling and chewing up of tapes by the tape deck as others did.
Perhaps by now, you’re thinking that this process was incredibly boring, for your Spotify playlist requires no maintenance and can change at random, but you’re forgetting that a love of music isn’t just about compiling, listening, and sharing. Music appreciation in the mixtape era was about the entire process. The holding of a cassette, the permanence of recorded sound (provided the write tab was removed), and the designing of mixtape artwork also took music appreciation to another level. As convenient as Spotify et al are, the tactile interaction is missing. I have often wondered in these three decades henceforth as to whether or not my love for music would be so profound had I not had these experiences. Regardless, the dedication I felt on that Saturday in May, so many years ago, is still present today.
As I would spend most of Saturday and almost all of Sunday, each week, listening to the radio, in the hope of sourcing a better copy of the song, the ultimate solution came when I realised that I need not record only from the radio, but that recording from another tape was possible. No longer was I waiting for a song that I admired to magically appear on the radio. Nor was I limited to the radio-friendly, but artistically limiting three-minute song duration. I was able to record, rewind, and share the music that left me speechless for words were then, and still are today, inadequate to describe just how liberating music feels to the inner soul of the music lover.
The one limitation I did face, however, was being young and broke. Thankfully, my mother and grandmother supported my love of music and were increasingly buying me cassette singles along with the occasional album that allowed me to build a respectable collection, along with piles of blank tapes!
As much as I loved my prerecorded cassettes, the ability to create my own unique compilation of music that communicated my thoughts and emotions at any given time was just too strong to deny. Play, record, pause, fast forward, and rewind became second nature as I would repeat the process over and over again. The trick, however, was ensuring that the mixes you were recording from one tape to another would fit on the amount of tape you had left. I can’t begin to tell you how many times the playlist I compiled had to be reimagined due to running out of tape. This was particularly challenging when recording from the radio as you didn’t know when you’d hear a certain song again. However, the mixtape master found a way. My solution was to record the radio programs to tape for hours at a time, then use that tape to create a mixtape of the songs that could then be used again for mixing additional tapes. Of course, I was unaware at the time that each time I copied a song, it was of a lower fidelity. Truth be told, on the consumer-grade playback and recording equipment I was using at the time, a degradation in quality would have made little to no difference. Plus, the mixtape era was never about quality, but the sharing of music with a personal spin that was unique to the creator and the receiver of the tape.
As Monday came around, each week, all I would talk about at school was music and how I was making these mixtapes. Sports were of no interest to me, but if I spoke of my beloved book collection, I would become the nerd that deep-down inside I knew I was but didn’t want to acknowledge in front of my peers. Lunchtimes were often spent in the library, but music gave me a voice. For the first time, I was being heard. I was accepted.
Then it happened. Daniel asked me if I could make him a mixtape.
Without thinking, I agreed. Daniel and I had been casual friends for years. Daniel didn’t know what he wanted, so he asked me to make a selection for him. Within 24 hours, Daniel had acquired the first official Greentree Records mixtape. Passing it to him filled me with joy and intense anticipation as I couldn’t wait to hear from him with regards to what he thought. Thankfully, his reply was positive and by lunchtime, the next day, going to the library was the last thing on my mind as my peers wanted to know more about these cassettes and if I could make them one as well. Within days I was being handed blank cassettes in order to share my mixes with those whom a week earlier wouldn’t have given me the time of day. It was instant fame and I was basking in my newfound friendships. Some of my peers knew the type of music they wanted and gave me a list of songs or artists, while others trusted my selection based on Daniel’s recommendation. While either option was okay with me, I found the ability to select my own mixes to be preferred as I was able to convey my thoughts through the music.
In many ways, the mixtape was a seductive tool. I, like many others, used it to woo the girl of my dreams. Jennifer had asked for a mix of songs, she didn’t really mind what I selected, so I found every romantic song I could lay my hands on. Her blonde hair, blue eyes, and the most welcoming smile I’ve ever seen simply captivated and inspired me. Uptown Girl was a natural choice, as was Michael Jackson’s Baby Be Mine and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), but despite recording such suggestive mixes, anxiety got the better of me and I re-recorded her mix with a less tacky approach. Perhaps Nick Hornby got it right in his opus High Fidelity, as creating a mixtape tape is really like writing a letter–there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. At any rate, Jennifer thanked me and went back to ignoring me soon after.
This wouldn’t be the last time I attempted to talk through music to the opposite sex. Despite the romantic notion of mixtape culture, I continually came up empty-handed. Nevertheless, mixtape culture remained alive and well and as my reputation grew, the tapes became more elaborate works of art. As mentioned earlier, the mixtape was more than just a selection of music. Perhaps that’s why it has remained relevant and is still a format of choice for independent musicians looking to merge their unique aural arts with the one-off hand-designed elements that are perfectly suited to the concertina liner notes format.
As for my mixtape productions, I initially wrote song names and artists on the included blank tape sleeve, but as time went on, I started to design my own liner notes. First by hand, later by computer. My computer designs were more elaborate, but the 100% handmade designs were arguably more compelling and uniquely different. I’d even colour and design the cassette tapes, thanks to magic markers and a hell of a lot of Liquid Paper. The Greentree Records label was always positioned prominently and it is possible that in my haste to come up with a logo, I copied the national flag of Lebanon. Come on, it’s a green tree, get it? It was like it was meant to be.
Of course, over time, I began to realise that what I was doing was an act of copyright infringement. Sure, no payment was received for services rendered, but that is of little relevance when the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) declares money need not be involved for copying to be considered illegal. Although, if one were to suggest the mixtape is a form of self-expression, that builds upon what came before and is, therefore, a new form of art, the legality of such a practice becomes blurred. After all, the hip-hop culture has sampled the work of others for years. Unfortunately, the legalities of such “creative” endeavours will always be hotly contested. Nevertheless, I can say with absolute assurance that I’ve purchased more music than I ever mixed to tape and it was my noble aim to expose my peers to the same music so that they would form an affection for it and buy the music they appreciated. Okay, so maybe I’m a little naïve, but I’m a dreamer!
As the years progressed, my mixtape master ego grew. The Compact Disc allowed me to make higher quality mixes and the speed at which songs could be selected was a godsend. I welcomed the technological advancements, never realising we would end up with what the respected music-first audiophile journalist John Darko terms a CD store in your house. Although, I often dreamt of spending the night in an HMV or Brashs Store. The problem was always wondering what album I would play first and knowing that the sun would come out, tomorrow, far earlier than the music lover within would have liked.
Regardless, the compact audio cassette maintained popularity throughout the 90s, despite the CD outselling it from 1991 onwards. The Discman appeared, but blank CDs and the associated writers were initially expensive and out of reach of the average consumer. During my reign as a mixtape master, I was thankfully never asked to compile a CD, despite the mixtape ethos transferring to the newer and more flexible, but impersonal, media.
Yes, the mixtape master is now retired. While it is better to burn out than to fade away, I was unfortunately not so lucky. However, there may be hope yet. The humble compact audio cassette is experiencing a revival of sorts. Not to the same level as the vinyl record, but not dissimilar either. A younger generation is once again showing us that what is old can be new again and with Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why prominently focusing the format, new mixtape masters are on their way; likely declaring this #mygeneration.