For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved making mixes. Not old enough to have dubbed tapes, the compact disc was my medium. When I was a kid growing up in Mill Woods, my best friend Inderjeet was the first person I knew who had a CD burner. This was a big deal. It was the size of a PC tower and would take over an hour to produce a disc. But once you finally got to feel the warmth of that freshly burnt, iridescent object in your hands, you knew you were holding a piece of sacred magic: a 1-of-1 custom compilation with whatever ill-begotten tunes you wanted on it. I printed an adhesive CD label for it that was a hazy desert landscape, rendered blearily by a muddy inkjet printer. It even had a title: “The Doubtless Gunner,” which was an oblique reference to my email account at the time, email@example.com.
I’ll never forget my first mix CD. The tracklist featured “Big Bang Baby” and “Sour Girl” by Stone Temple Pilots, “New” by No Doubt (of course), several Jerky Boys skits and lots of Eminem songs including unreleased tracks like “Hellbound” featuring Masta Ace, which had me practically vibrating with excitement over its deft combination of dense, multisyllabic battle rhymes and music from the Soul Calibur soundtrack. You couldn’t buy this song in the store. Anything seemed possible.
In the ensuing years, burning CDs became more common and I got to make mixes in my own home. The track order was vital, the selection was crucial, you needed to establish a flow, some sort of emotional direction that would hopefully conclude with the listener pressing stop on their jittery Panasonic Shockwave and associating these wonderful songs with Me, the person who burnt them the CD.
The impulse to share music probably comes from my dad who was a popular radio DJ in Edmonton. Eventually I would burn CDs that I would use to DJ with, printing off the tracklists with iTunes. I’d occasionally play songs over the PA system during lunch hour in the atrium at St. Francis Xavier High School using an ancient front-loading CD unit supplied by the school. I’d censor out the swear words with Cool Edit Pro at home.
Burning CDs wasn’t so much about piracy as having access to the unofficial homemade bootlegs, remixes and unreleased tracks that I was finding on message boards or creating myself. When I started rapping, I mass-produced CD-Rs with my first mixtape on it. My high school girlfriend Lisa helped me spray paint the labels. I treated that release with the same variety and attention to detail I would give to a mix that I was making for a dear friend.
When things went digital, I started an mp3 blog in university called Razorblade Runner where I would write about random songs I would discover and post links. After that, I would upload zip files of tracks to Mediafire and post them on Facebook or email them to my friends. They were usually based around the seasons or holiday themes. It was a fun creative outlet. As technology improved along with my skills as a DJ, I got into recording live DJ mixes for internet radio stations like TRP, n10.as and ISO Radio. That brings us to where we are today: the age of the curator.
Today’s playlist curator is a tastemaker who has found a way to monetize their listening habits. The art world association implied by use of the term “curator” suggests that what they do is an art form itself, something forged over time that requires a specialized skill set and knowledge base. We’re living in an age of plenty where we supposedly have more access to more music than ever before and more ways for artists to reach a larger audience. But more and more, it seems like much of what we listen to is dictated by the whim of just a few individuals.
I initially thought that streaming might lead to a mass proliferation of new genres, a great democratization of tastes that would render the old models obsolete. I anticipated a frictionless experience with less barriers between me and finding more music. But after using streaming apps more frequently leading up to the release of my new album, it seems like the thrill of the new and the excitement for sharing has been lost in the playlist era.
Even though it’s easier than ever, does anyone actually send their own homemade playlists to their friends anymore? Something about the user experience of streaming platforms makes this the last thing I would ever think of doing. I can listen to “anything ever made” but I find myself searching less and letting the algorithm take the wheel for me more often. Most playlists lack the personal touch that I associate with making a mix. There is little surprise and delight to be had. There’s a cynical catering to expectations that have been fostered and perpetuated by the curators themselves over time, creating a feedback loop that encourages homogeneity and punishes anything that stands out. Repetition is the goal. They often uniformly stick to single genres in a way that no human naturally would.
I made a playlist just to put something in the ecosystem that was different. I wanted to select songs that were compelling, strange or had the germ of a good idea in them. Weird fragmentary tunes that I was excited about but would probably never be boosted by the platform. I wonder if the compulsion to share will be diluted or strengthened by the streaming era. All I know is that wherever things go next, I’ll be bringing my CD burning mentality there with me.