The Tao of Making a Mixtape (or Playlist)

I have to be honest: I love that the younger generation is getting into older stuff. Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” topping the charts again because of Stranger Things is a prime example. My motives for loving this trend are completely egotistical—I feel like I’m not getting old as fast as I am. When I’m buying alcohol and the cashier only has to see the year I was born begins with a 1, it takes a toll on the youthful spirit.

With this resurgence of vintage tastes, like vinyl records becoming more popular than they ever were, it’s only going to be a matter of time before people start making mixtapes like they used to. For my purposes, mixtape shall be defined as a curation of music applied to a physical or digital medium for the sake of communicating feelings or in the hopes of discovering unifying musical tastes. A mixtape could be a cassette, a burned CD, or a Spotify playlist.

Let’s be clear: making a mixtape is an art form! You can’t just throw together a bunch of songs and hope for swoons! The good news is that yours truly is going to give you the definitive guide to putting together a playlist for maximum results. What are my qualifications? I was a musician in charge of putting together set lists, I worked in radio, and I’ve been making mixtapes since I was old enough to know what blank cassettes were.

Preparations — This is a mixtape goddamnit! You can’t walk into these things all willy-nilly, loosey-goosey, and/or jerky-werky (I made that last one up). You are pouring actual feelings and energy into this project, so you want to be sure that you’re making the most impact possible. Before we just start throwing together a playlist, we need to know the following:

  1. Who is our audience? Are we trying to engage in romance or just make a new friend by bonding through music? One will drastically change the music you change through the other.
    1. For example: if you’re trying to win the heart of another, you may want to exclude Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” as the line “I want to f*** you like an animal” may come off as a little strong—unless they’re into that, then do your thing. The point is, read the audience.
    2. If you’re just trying to show someone some new tunes, keep in mind what may or may not be in good taste according to what they already listen to. A song with half a million F Bombs might not go over well.
  2. Keep a mind for time. The most successful mixtapes are forty-five minutes to an hour. 
  3. Medium. Are you going to make an actual CD or a playlist?

Opening track: Go for something digestible, pop even. This is your one and only shot to make a great first impression, so go with a track that is familiar and will encourage your audience to keep listening. Think “If I were going to play this at a party, would the room start hopping, or would my DJ duties get revoked?”

Tracks 2-4: Still digestible, but also appropriate to go into deeper meaning. If you can get your listener to the end of track four, they are much less likely to spend the energy to turn the tape off. They might be listening while they are doing laundry, or on a long drive, this is the sweet spot to get them hooked.

Track 5: Drop some deeper meaning, but not too deep. Now would be a good time for a song you want them to think about, like “Two Hearts” by Bruce Springsteen, but not too deep, like “Nights in White Satin.” The prom just started, don’t blow your Hail Mary just yet. If you’re looking to make a new musical friend, this might turn them off to your message.

Tracks 6-7: Reel it back in, just a bit, like tracks 2, 3, and 4.

Tracks 8-10: Let’s ask them to dance! Now’s the time to be thinking “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaac, or coughing up the instrumental mind-bender in the weird time signature. This is the moment where you are laying out your intentions. You’ve courted your listener up to now; now it’s time to close the deal!

Tracks 11-13: This is a free space, this is your room to pad the playlist/mixtape with whatever tunes you think need representation. This is your mixtape, after all, not mine. I’m just trying to make your mixtape sound choice.

Tracks 14-15: These spots are important because you want the listener to come back to the mix, right? If you’re trying to win hearts, then you may need your amor to listen a few times. If you’re trying to get your new music friend to understand your selections on a new level, then it may take a few listens. Let’s end your mixtape on another digestible note. Something fun, something that summarizes your point, and something that invites them to come back.

Important points:

  1. Limit your selections to one song per artist. Unless it’s a really special occasion, most radio programmers leave a few hours between playing another song (even if it is a different song) by the same artist.
  2. Vulgarity is subjective. Read the room.
  3. There is a very good chance that your listener will not give a solitary f*** about the work you’ve put into your mixtape. Keep your chin up, take your L, and move on.
  4. For the love of the Risen Christ and the Enlightened Buddha: HAVE FUN! The amount of fun you have putting together a mixtape will translate to the listener.

I hope this helps with your mixtape venture. If you are particularly proud of one you’ve made, I love discovering new music, so shout at me on Twitter @Millerverse, on TikTok @Millerverse, or send me an email through the contact page.

Thank you for joining me on this trip across the Millerverse; I’ll see you next time!

Songs listened to while writing this blog:

  1. Ashes to Ashes – Faith No More
  2. Ocean Man – Ween
  3. Cowboys from Hell – Pantera
  4. Evil – Interpol

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