For The Love of the Mix

In the age of the iTunes playlist, making a mix is easier than ever and in my opinion, there isn't a better gift. If the best presents are from the heart, even better presents are musical.

Not only do my mixes display my preferences in music, but they also relate to what moves me emotionally. They are stained-glass windows into my personality and each song is a colorful piece of who I am.

Indeed, every time I create a new playlist, I change into a something of a safari guide to a Sahara of new music (minus the crazy hat and shorts). It's not an in-depth analysis of my iTunes library, but it is a quick and adventurous tour of the landscape.

Even more rewarding is when the listener actually enjoys my mix. Positive feedback is more than just a compliment. Not only does it show that they like who I am musically, but I feel like each appreciated song becomes a new bridge between us.

You see, being the creator of a mix makes me both excited as the bearer of something new, but vulnerable as my taste is totally exposed. Another's acceptance of this bare musical display dashes any feeling of being hung out to dry and is replaced by the warmth of newfound common ground between myself and the listener.

In the beginning, I made general mixes for people who were looking for new music. It was fun to actively seek out and predict which songs would be conducive to both an accessible but novel listening experience. Perhaps more delightful was honing the list until it flowed from song to song, smoothly shifting between variety, and finally presenting itself as a cohesive whole. I then got to relish in the product myself, before presenting it to a friend, colleague, whomever.

The mix making process has definitely expanded. I've become so comfortable with my musical taste over time that I developed a knack for thematically formatting each mix. More recently, I've found that the easiest and most effective mixes were those designed to be romantic. Perhaps this is due to the wealth of material from which to draw upon (there being so many love songs out there), but I've also increasingly incorporated a plethora of detailed personal touches.

Obviously, mixes are not confined to themes of love. There's the car mix, party mix, chill mix, homework mix, sad mix, etc. However, I spend the most time on things that I care about and despite how corny it sounds, love is one of those things.

The romantic mix has become ridiculously elaborate, but it started with merely picking songs that fit the theme. An early example of this was an amalgamation of generic Valentines-esque tunes divided onto two discs, appropriately labeled "Love" and "Lust." The songs didn't really have any personal history or meaning to them, but at face value they worked.

This brings me to the second most important aspect of the mix: the packaging. Merely a track and artist listing would accompany many of my earlier mixes. Often times they were sloppily scrawled out with a Sharpie on the back of those thin colored CD cases that you can buy in bulk at Costco. That evolved into a Word Document, consisting of the song information, printed out, cut up and slipped in with the disc.

The first time I really considered the presentation of my mix was with "Love" and "Lust." Each had a legitimate insert. There was color, cover art and a personalized inside. The track listings were neatly scrawled out in flowery writing in conjunction with intimate notes and things of that nature. It looked great, but it was just an insert.

Still, central to any proper CD's packaging is the insert. It has the cover art and all the useful information, so it's kind of like your first impression and your appendix. Over time, the romantic mixes had inserts that took on a life of their own. Each had more fleshed out personalities, full of intricate touches that took up more time and effort than actually assembling the mix.

The music of my mix would also inspire the packaging while I worked, relishing in the final musical product while I created its initial presentation. In fact, sometimes it was necessary for me to listen while I worked.

For a particularly complex and ornate three disc mix, I actually wrote a few sentences to explain how each and every song belonged. The mix was for my girlfriend and it was named after her. All of the tracks held significant meaning for both us, sometimes lyrically, other times because of a specific memory. I wrote about the meaning of each song by hand on a colorfully decorated insert, which I cut out and taped together to fit the CD case. The mix was 60 songs long, and it took me forever, but it was aesthetically and personally moving for both of us. I guess the effort was worth it, because she's still with me today. Moreover, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process and that's important.

The handcrafted insert grew to the handcrafted case. A mix that I called "The Sun" (because of its packaging) focused on songs I found to be particularly enjoyable and moving. The quality of the music began to manifest itself in its presentation as I searched for inventive and realistic (affordable) ways of enshrining the disc visually.

I came up with the idea of a circular CD case. I cut out two pieces of circular paper just a tad larger than the disc itself. To enclose the CD, I cut out a third circle and divided it evenly into twenty pie shaped pieces, one for each song on the mix. Each would be a flap and act as the CD cover and art. When every one of the flaps was unfolded, the resemblance to the sun was unmistakable. I colored each flap as such, with tons of yellows, reds, and oranges, put a song title on each as well, left the circular center bright-white and called it "The Sun." The back of each flap was colored with a much broader spectrum and was done according to how each song made me feel. The result was a swirling mishmash of colors. It meant so much more than just the vapid gleam of an impersonal disc.

My most elaborate and most recent project was another three disc romantic epic. Disc one had songs that my girlfriend and I had seen performed live, while the other two discs had songs that in some way reminded me of my summer with her. I fleshed out the memories in a typed insert, recalling my first three disc mix for her, but this time, the insert was eclipsed by the grandiose nature of the case itself.

Designed like an actual jewel case, I made it with three cut out pieces of solid cardboard. I then taped them together so that they closed properly. Next, I cut out thinner cardboard and taped them on to make slots for each disc and a slot for the insert. It sounds easier than it was... believe me. The entire thing was covered in three layers of white acrylic paint, front to back, so that neither tape nor cardboard shown through. I then lacquered onto the paint the petals of a rose I had gotten her while she had visited. The design was more than I could have hoped for.

Packaging has taken my mixes to a whole new level, giving them artistic and intimate qualities that develop their own meaning. I think the visual of an album is very important (which would explain my compulsive need to buy CDs). Creating your own visual for the music you've chosen is a significant way of making a mix your own.

I guess that I'm trying to convey how a good personal mix can actually come to life. Effort is worth a lot more than cash when giving a gift and that effort is immortalized in its result, whereas any other gift won't be able to have the same lasting heartfelt qualities that a mix can have. Plus, I'm giving away good new music and as a DJ, that's what I love to do. What more can anyone ask for?

Here are some instructions for a successful mix:

  • Make sure you are picking music that you wouldn’t mind listening to. A lot. It’s gotta be stuff you WANT to hear. In other words, make sure you’re willing to stand by your songs. Can’t stress that enough.

  • Try to choose tracks that you think your listener might enjoy. You are making this mix for them after all.

  • You also want to be certain that your mix is fresh for the listener. You don’t want to give him or her a bunch of songs they’ve heard a thousand times.

  • FLOW: The mix can’t jump around or be too erratic, otherwise you’ll distance your listener. Smooth transitions between songs are important.

  • Put a familiar or really catchy/accessible track every few songs — something to ground the listener in your mix. A colossal wave of new music can be overwhelming and can wash right over anyone’s head.

  • PACKAGING: Presentation is important. It shows how much effort you put into your mix, and it leaves a lasting impression. Don’t underestimate visual associations.

  • Personalize it. Make the mix your own.

  • Put yourself out there. Gotta take risks, so don’t be shy with your musical tastes.

  • Enjoy! Seriously, enjoy what you’re doing, and what you’re listening to, otherwise other people won’t enjoy it either.

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