At some point in the late 70s, a period of vast upheaval was underway, transforming how listeners consumed their idols’ music, varyingly untouched for two decades. Cutting edge technology like the… erm… home cassette recorder suddenly enabled the act of sharing music, the ability to gift whatever you’d experienced to someone of your choosing.
Painstakingly recording from the radio to blank tape, an audiophile could curate a collection of songs that, for example, the object of their amorous affection just had to hear.
The most recent season of The Handmaid’s Tale saw our hero, at some unidentified point in the socially-apocalyptic future, stumble upon a box of cassettes from the eighties, and is immediately transported, along with the viewer, back to a blissful period of cultural freedom. The humble mixtape was a physical manifestation of a music lover’s yearning to share or ratify their experience, to spread the audio gospel, to ask the listener, in the words of baroness of bops Belinda Carlisle, ‘Do you feel like I feel?’
Of course, as a result, the ‘thrifty’ listener also had the opportunity to enjoy music without parting with their pennies. Records were spread like wildfire across fans, a precursor to the piracy revolution of the naughty noughties, and even industry monoliths like Fleetwood Mac were affected – the band blamed disappointing sales of their Rumours follow-up, Tusk, on an American radio station playing the album in full before release, allowing it to be recorded by frugal fans.
In 2019, the music industry continues to spar with how consumers consume, and it’s never been easier for music listeners of all enthusiasm levels to build their own mixtapes and share the love. Enter sparring sisters in streaming, Spotify and Apple Music.
Carefully (or not so carefully) curated playlists have taken the place of radio stations in ruling our listening habits, and indeed a whole sub-industry has sprung, with labels courting anointed Spotify and Apple employees with free concert tickets and party guestlists in exchange for playlist favouring (if you’re reading this at Spotify, my resume is available upon request), with some of global playlists followed by just under 25 million users – a guaranteed access path to greedy listeners around the world. Most effectively, the power remains in the hands (or ears) of the listener, and if Spotify and Apple’s playlists aren’t floating your boat, you can curate your own experience at literally the click of a button… with more or less, every song ever made at your disposal.
The second half of 2017 was a time of personal upheaval and change in my life, and on reflection, almost definitely the beginning of my Saturn’s return – I entered a period of sort of… semi-hermitism; rising before sunrise, sweating out the morning’s angst on the treadmill, barrelling home after work to spend the evening in the bath with some sort of self-hope tome, before hitting the hay at an unreasonably early hour, then beginning again the following morning. Amidst this self-care life sojourn, I began drawing up Spotify playlists as a therapeutic tool: If I felt blue, I’d put together my favourite melancholy moods; if I felt resilient, I collected my steeliest songs of strength; when I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I fixed up my favourite songs of fixing, and healing.
None of this was revolutionary stuff, but as someone with zero musical talent but an almost debilitating passion for it, to build a journey, an arc, to actually tell a story with a playlist was empowering and brilliant. I would share playlists with friends, and often receive impeccable ones in return – something I very much enjoy even today – and I’d pitch the idea that making a mixtape for a loved one or friend is an act of service, a love language in itself. Whether a cassette tape in 1996 or streaming playlist in 2019, it’s gratifying to share the art of others.