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Zen and the Art of the Musical Mix

There’s nothing like the gift of a personal music mix. I’ve made mixes since I was in short pants and some odd three decades later, I’m still making them, personal ones and some as part of my job.

When making a personal mix, it helps to know your audience. Even if you don’t know someone’s exact taste in music, it helps to have a gist. A mix tape for your own listening pleasure is much different than the one you’re making for someone you’re just getting to know romantically or the one you intend for Mahatma Gandhi. For example, you shouldn’t automatically assume that Gandhi’s gonna be down with the generally leftist political bent of Rage Against The Machine. Though he might’ve agreed with their emphasis on social justice and equality, he still might have had a problem with the content of their song “Killing in the Name.”

In the same way, you might not want to put an AC/DC song on that Mother’s Day mix for your mom. Now, she may indeed be hip enough and have the same taste as a 13-year- old boy, but try a little harder to challenge the woman who birthed you in her listening endeavors (and failing that, simply have the Iron Man 2 soundtrack handy as a backup plan).

Making compilations for Starbucks also requires that one have the gist of what you all might be interested in, even if we take chances sometimes. Our Peggy Lee Come Rain or Come Shine opus collection was a big hit and our World Is India compilation was a modest hit. Potentially quite different audiences, both however featured a nice mixture of songs that we thought our customer might particularly enjoy and might not have heard before.

Not to get all High Fidelity on you, but mix tapes can have a lot of different themes and/or viewpoints, and it still comes down to tone. What’s the tone of the mix? Is it intended for a Fourth of July barbecue? A child’s birthday party? A dress-up shindig with cocktails? An afterhours rave (do people still have these)? A lengthy road trip? Crying yourself to sleep at night? It depends and it’s important. While I might prefer the latter of these, I strive to find the right combination of songs that flow together without too many jarring segues.

Transitions between songs are not to be overlooked. Jarring can be good, as in “Wow, I never would have thought that Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ would flow so effortlessly into CSS’s ‘Move,’ followed by Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),’ but it does!” And jarring can be bad, like when you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic and you didn’t expect Joni Mitchell to be followed so soon by Tool.

A mix should also have a fantastic opening (much like a book or film) that hooks you right away and makes you want to go further into the mix, or to simply hit repeat. It’s very flattering to have someone say: “I haven’t made it all the way through your mix yet because I keep playing that (insert name of your choice: Lady GaGa, Justin Bieber, Yehudi Menuhin) song over and over again!” And an equally fantastic ending. A song that perfectly sums up the theme, puts just the right closure on and leaves one wanting more.

People are often daunted about making me a mix, often saying: “You’ve probably heard it all before.” Perhaps, but doubtful. There’s a lot of music out there. And ultimately, I’m fascinated by how someone puts a playlist together, why they chose certain songs, and why they wanted me to hear them. It’s that genuine personal touch that really counts.

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