Try as it might, a “For You” radio station created by hyper-personalized AI just doesn’t hit the same way as a burned CD. Associate Director of Story Eliza Florendo walks us back through time—before Limewire and even before MTV played videos—to explore what we lose when algorithms replace your best friend’s “SUMMER 2001 JAMS” mix.
To anyone who's ever burned mp3 is onto a compact disc that little whirring sound is unmistakable. It's the sound of ones and zeros getting encoded on a shiny circular piece of plastic. I'm Eliza Florendo, Associate Director of Story at Day One. And in this episode of the Quarterly, I'll walk through The Lost Art of Mixed CDs. Ready to go back in time.?
Let me take you back for a second. If you were born before 1995, you'll remember the popularity of mixed CDs.
(Josh Rosenberg Interlude) If you're born even before that, or well before that, like me, the resident old you'll remember the beauty of a mixtape in that cassette format, but more on that later.
Remember the painstaking detail of putting one together for a road trip, your crush or your best friend. After heading to limewire.com, questionably downloading an album for a single song on your parents computer. You'd insert a blank CD. Watch sorcery happen as your perfectly curated 16 Song Playlist popped out. And then of course, there was the album art. You'd take an old Sharpie, shake it to make sure it still had some juice and carefully block out summer 2001 jams, Christina Aguilera and Usher making several appearances. You'd slip it into a blank CD case and voila, you were practically a record label executive.
There was pride in creating that mixed CD and knowing the person's tastes, but sprinkling in new songs you think they'd like. It took hours of parsing through songs and being cutthroat with your selections, and the final result was always a reflection of you, or who you are as a person. Just like how we chose a single song to play in the background of our MySpace pages like how we could choose one ringtone for ringback tone. Neo anyone? Like how I recorded the theme song to Sex in the City on my flip phone and use it as my ringtone in middle schoo, #soposh. Fast forward to today. According to a report from the Recording Industry Association of America, revenues from streaming services grew nearly 20% in 2019 to $8.4 billion.
Open up a music streaming app (a subscription I pay for) and I get crippling anxiety every time. There's 10 different playlists curated for me, all based on different moods, decades and genres. And no matter how many playlists are curated for me, I always return to old faithful, a playlist eloquently labeled “Good Shit” that I update once in a while.
I noticed as technology advanced, as illegal downloading transitioned to legal streaming, I became less interested in finding new music. Why would I be when streaming services are handing me 50,000 minutes of music pick just for me. That's what we call path dependence. The idea that decisions presented to people are dependent on previous decisions or experiences made in the past.
There's this thing now that we're all guided by. It's called the algorithm. It serves as the content we like to see on Instagram, on TikTok, and on Netflix. It keeps serving us what TikTokk thinks we will like so we keep on scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Liking this cat video and the next cat video. Sorry, this is getting personal.
So, back to path dependence. So what happens with streaming services is they serve up music they think we’ll like and 99.9% of the time. They're right. So why bother to explore something new? Opinion writer Josh gray has a theory. He says ad supported platforms generate less money for labels and artists than vinyl sales. With this information and the understanding that there are over 30 million tracks available at our fingertips, it would seem we are the masters of our musical destiny. However, I would argue it's not us that are the tastemakers, but that big data are.
How did we get here? Let's back up. The first device known to record music was the phonograph in 1877 by our guy Thomas Edison. It changed music forever, from only being able to listen to it live to giving people the opportunity to listen to music from the comfort of their own homes. Around this time, Columbia Records opened up and figured out how to record multiple songs on a single record—game changer. Vinyl became the primary source of music listening for most of the 20th century. And side note, Urban Outfitters claims it's become the biggest record sales destination in 2020—the kids are going back to analog.
Anyway, in 1958 the tape was invented and installed in cars, changing road trips forever. Then came a slew of new inventions, the CD, the Walkman and MTV in 1999. CDs had a record sales year and shortly after Napster was invented, sharing music via the internet became the norm. And this was further solidified by the inception of the iPod and mp3 players in 2001. 10 years later, making music as we know it today, the invention of Spotify. When I asked a Gen Z co-worker if making playlists for people are still a thing, he looked puzzled. I asked, Would you ever send a playlist to a friend being I made this for you? The answer was a definitive and resounding “no.” That fact broke my heart a little.
Gen Z and generations after will never know the art form of the playlist or mixed CD, of flipping through radio channels until you could hear your song of the summer, or watching hours of MTV and discovering a new artist from TRL. You had to risk your life to add new CDs to the backseat. I guess you just had to be there.