Despite all the peaking and plummeting of trends in recorded music, compact discs have to stick around for one main reason: mix CDs. Making compilations for friends, crushes, and other peers in music fandom is an obsession that refuses to fall by the wayside, even as the medium has progressed from cassettes to CDs. This private pastime has also become increasingly public in recent years, moving beyond a gift you offer a single pal to a bartering chip you trade with a dozen others, as discmakers hope to expand the realm of musical knowledge, as well as their social circles, with personalized merchandise at bars around town.
Just to be clear, I'm not talking about hip-hop and DJ mixes that gain artists grassroots street cred. I'm speaking of the amateur stuff that used to require pushing "play" and "record" at exactly the right time on the old tape recorder. I've been making and receiving comps since I was a kid, and in the past couple years I've been able to extend my listening audience a bit, falling in with friends who gather and drink under the auspices of a night called the New Music Exchange.
Every month our "members" assemble two CDs along a theme and trade them with other music heads. I've given and received some duds, of course, but through the Exchange I've also been able to extract winners from the white noise. The achy-breaky songwriter Bon Iver, for example, flew well beneath my radar until I listened to a "lovers' comp" featuring its popular single, "Skinny Love." I've since become an ardent fan.
The artwork I create for my CD covers is usually the worst of the bunch, scribbled out at the very last minute, but enthusiasts with more advanced graphic skills take their packaging very seriously, turning in their tunes with impressive, retail-quality covers. For a monthly pastime, they elevate the hobby to high art. And mine isn't the only mixer for mixes.
Amateur soundtrackers are flocking around Facebook, attaching to Internet radio stations like LastFM and pooling resources on sites like Muxtape (which was recently put on hold by the RIAA) to meet like-minded compilers. San Francisco has spawned a number of crews for recorded playlists, based on online discussion groups, monthly club nights, and even an upcoming art show. In each case the focus is on bonding over music, often over beers, while elevating your iTunes collection into something you can personally disseminate.
The popular Yahoo music group SF_Indie has had its own mixtape crew since 2003. Thirty-five people from the Bay Area and beyond (along with founder Jake Thomas, who still participates from his current home in North Carolina, and local host Rich Trott of the band Palace Family Steak House) have signed on to swap music every three to four months; a dozen or so actually make the trade each time. Thomas says that after a few sessions, some individual personalities show through. "I'd say there is probably some overlap between the style of mix created and the type of person that creator is, but I'm no psychologist," he adds. He has, however, been able to pick out different trading types, like the romantics, the hype chasers, the play-it-safers, and the classics lovers.
Membership is open to anyone who is also involved in SF_Indie, and it's a way to commit to disc the songs that inspire the fandom that regularly spreads through the e-mail discussion forum. "Even in this day and age of being able to download anything you want online, there is something to be said about putting together a selection of songs that means a lot to you and sharing it with your friends," Thomas says.
Elsewhere in the city, compers congregate at the Casanova, which hosts the monthly "Mixing People Is Meeting People" for CD swapping. Participants hand their personalized soundtracks to DJs Dirty Laundry and Phantom Taste and leave with those of a stranger's. The next music meet at the Mission bar is Sept. 7.
Starting Saturday, Aug. 30, mixdisc communities enter the art world, as Iceberger Gallery (3150 18th St. in the Mission) becomes a de facto "record store" under the guise of local conceptual artist Bill Wehmann and his Pacific Reverb Society show. Wehmann is a musician (he plays organ in two bands) who grew up outside of D.C., where he admired the tightly knit Dischord Records punk community. Inspired by the personal connections fostered in that metropolitan music scene, Wehmann modeled the Reverb Society after the industry's interactive microcosms. He's creating a hub where people build networks for setting up shows, putting out records, or just generating excitement for music, regardless of a band's popularity. To this end, he's constructed shelves for CDs and adorned the walls of Iceberger with show flyers. He'll also have a cash register in place, but for the most part the "price" for the mix discs is simply to bring one of your own in exchange.
Wehmann points out that mix compilations personalize music, so that even folks with no ability or desire to take up an instrument can feel like they're producing music, and becoming part of a larger music community. Participation is key in a culture where it's easy to get lost in individual music players. "I just can't stand the whole iPod escapism download culture that is taking over a lot of underground music," he says.
For Pacific Reverb Society's Aug. 30 opening party (which will run from 7 to 9 p.m.), Wehmann warns that the initial mix selection is kinda slim, but it comes from compilation enthusiasts across the country. The genres range from noise/soundscape stuff to punk and folk, and he expects the collection to grow as word spreads about the show. But, as with mixes themselves, the main idea is less about volume than it is about personalizing a vast musical universe. "People should be more concerned with how an idea resonates with them than how accessible or popular it is," he says. "We should not be afraid to consider the small moments of our lives as the greatest moments."
That last point pretty much sums up the thrill of being a mix CD hobbyist. In an era where the amateurs (bloggers, home-recorded bands, bedroom labels) are flourishing, so, too, is the old-school tradition of do-it-yourself soundtracks. And so, as social networking comes full circle to personally communicating — and trading — with other music lovers, passing along those mixes is definitely a lot more fun than handing over a single CD to a crush who, really, you might not even know a couple months from now.