MY C90: Mixtapes are the original social media

Once upon a time there was something more powerful than Twitter, MySpace and Facebook combined.

It was a platform that brought people together and allowed a you a chance to paint on a blank canvas with music.

This, ladies and gentleman was the mixtape.

This was a cassette filled with tracks you’d selected. It wasn’t just art. It was an art.

For over 25s the mixtape was the status update of the day. They could be a love letter, a  sign of friendship or the grandstanding of musical knowledge. All recorded across two sides of a C90 cassette with 45 minutes on each side (or if you were a real oddball, a C60).

From the 1970s to the mid-1990s the cassette was a standard medium for music. With my bedroom too small for all but a ghetto blaster cassettes were the way I listened to music. I wasn’t alone. As a teenager, music was massively important. It help shape who I was. Through it all, mixtapes were how I circulated my thoughts.

Brian Eno used to make mixtapes for his mates. He’d record slow classical music movements back-to-back. They were a prototype to the ambient music he pioneered.

“Composers hadn’t caught up,” he recalled on BBC Radio Four’s Frontrow .

“People didn’t buy records and sit at home between two speakers listening to an LP.

“They bought music and they were cooking or washing up with music in the background.

“New technology means new music. Always.”

In 1990, more than 400 million cassettes were sold in the US. Many for home taping and unlike the slogan no, it didn’t kill music. But what did die was the cassette as a popular platform. By 2007 barely 200,000 cassettes were sold in the US. Those figures are likely to be reflected in the UK.



When making mixtapes I’d arrived at a series of golden rules. Always start with two fast paced corkers one after the other. Make the third slower. Surprise with a build between fast and slow. Be unexpected. And never, ever let the tape run out before the track finished. Ever.

In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s story of a music obsessive the mixtape is a way repressed men could communicate. He impressed his girlfriend with a mixtape.

In the late 1990s powered with red wine I  compiled a cassette for a girl.  With Stereolab, The Stone Roses, The La’s and The Beatles it was a combination of care and bravado. Just enough sensitivity with a layer of cool disregard just in case.

The girl who I made that tape for 12-years ago, dear reader, is now my wife. The tape? Somewhere in the loft.


A rather marvellous conversation on Twitter sparked the idea of Mixtape night classes. Like woodwork or macrame these skills could be kept alive at Stafford College. What would those sessions look like? Check @janetedavis’ quite excellent Mixtape night school syllabus. There is input there from @sarahlay and @jvictor7 too.

Feel free to contribute your own…

Creative commons credits

Cassettes Erica Marshall

Mixtape links

Philip John’s excellent blog on how Spotify risks failure by not tapping into the social side of compiling play lists is here.

Jim Anning’s Twitpic of his mixtape. I could have had a borrow of that back in the day. The shot is here.

A mixtape USB stick. The dream present for geek music lovers over 25. Amazing. Thanks to @cahrlottetwitts it’s here. 

You can rely on Flickr for having a mixtape group. They’re here.

Steph has written a fantastic post about the mix CD that her chap James game to her in the mid-1990s. It shows brilliantly the stories behind the homemade selections. Read it here.

Epic visionary Sarah Lay has written a  great piece on what the mixtape means to her. It’s a great read and it’s here.

Jamie Summerfield blogged about how a mixtape helped provide the answer after his father died. You can read it here. 

This is genius. An idea by Andrew Dubber for a mixtape making service was picked up by a Canadian web developer who created this wonderful, amazing, brilliant thing here.

Join the Conversation


  1. A lovely post, Dan! Delighted to hear that a mixtape helped you win over the woman of your life.
    ‘The Mixtape – Art & craft of’ virtual course is just at planning stage at present. This is designed – in true mixtape fashion – to be a compilation of ideas and methods from various people. Anyone who has photos of old mixtapes, especially original artwork inlays, we would be delighted if you shared them with us.

  2. Exactly.

    Seems there’s a good deal of thinking going on about this. My modest contribution as follows:

    1) An idea I had for an online mixtape service (someone has made this and is just putting the final touches on it now – to be announced next week):

    2) I teach Music Programming at Birmingham City University. It’s a 2nd year undergraduate Radio course on a Media degree, but it’s specifically designed to help students understand how people make meaning from music – and how selecting and ordering that music can construct narrative and communicate. Their weekly homework is to make a 1 hour mixtape playlist each on Spotify, under set criteria (different for each student, changing each week) – and then listen to and critique each other’s selections and ordering.

    3) I started a project with a BCU colleague last year for people to submit photos of old mixtapes ( Everyone got very excited about it. Nobody actually did it. I think perhaps because we asked them to tell us a little bit about the tape when they sent us the photo, and everyone felt the story connected with the tape was either too personal or too important to just throw into an email – and would instead require work in the re-telling. I’d be keen to tweak and re-launch the concept though.

    1. Old mixtape project – sounds like the sort of project that I’m usually involved with professionally (I’m an art & design historian who tends to work on cultural heritage on the web things) – though I usually concentrate on visual material. Maybe we could have a chat next time I visit Birmingham? I think that it’s worth thinking more about it! 😉

  3. Agree with Janet; lovely post. I remember at the start of the 90s being given a copy of a mix-tape made up for an acquaintance who was off to travel India for a year. All of his friends put their one most favourite track on. The result was stunning.

    BTW – In case you don’t know about it (suspect you do though) “Late Night Junction” on BBC Radio 3 is a really wide-ranging and eclectic music programme, often putting wildly different tracks back-to-back. Definitely recommended – especially when blogging later on of an evening.

    Best …

  4. Janet – Cheers. I think ‘The Mixtape – Art & craft of’ will fly. Must dig out some old ones from my parents’ loft.

    Russell – Didn’t know about ‘Late Night Junction.’ It sounds great. Must look it up.

    Dubber – That’s brilliant. To effectively teach the skills of creating a tape is utter brilliance. This is another reason the West Midlands is brilliant. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the mixtape service.

    As for the project to record tapes and their stories, this is fantastic. How can we help?

  5. The best gift I ever received was a mix “cd” ok I know not a tape but the same level of thought had gone into it double disk too which equates to a two sided disk surely- James gave it to me before we were “us” and I still love and listen to it now.

    You know I’m going to blog it tomorrow once I’ve recovered from my foray out with the 4am project – I’ll scan it in and post the track list too.

  6. Dan, you’ve dredged some of my favourite memories up! I loved the grand art of making a mix tape, starting at the young age of about 11, compiling tapes from My Dad’s Vinyls (with some “new fangled” CD’s chucked in as and when we got them) – these were an eclectic mix of things like Led Zeppelin, Lindisfarne, The Beatles, Erasure, Tears for Fears, Eurythmics, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac – anything I could lay my hands on I stuck it on a mix tape to listen to and broaden my musical horizons.

    As I discovered my own musical tastes these grew to be “mood” tapes, with tracks from the likes of Terrorvision, Nirvana, Guns N Roses, Pearl Jam, Oasis, Soundgarden, Silverchair, Levellers, Smashing Pumpkins – the prime of 90’s alternative.

    I’d make heavy tapes, acoustic tapes, tapes primarily around Metal, Grunge, Punk, stuff to listen to in the car (my tapes were called “Stuff” – I think I had 10 volumes of general stuff and around 10 further genre specific “Stuff” tapes). I’d draw designs on the inlay cards. Yes, I even made a few as “love letters” to my now wife.

    Mix tapes aren’t just about showing off what music you like. They’re an expression of mood, desire, emotion; a snapshot of a person and the world around them. They can evoke anger, happiness, sadness, compassion and love. Above all, they should honour the art of the music they contain.

    This post and a number of others on the subject I’ve read today have put a great big smile on my face. I’m going to go and make a new “Stuff” playlist on iTunes when I get home (no longer than a CD; keeps it tight 🙂 )

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