It'd be easy to dismiss the mix tape as a passing fad among pre-digital college kids were it not for the revolution we now know it foreshadowed.
The legendary singer Bing Crosby died in 1977, the same year YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley was born. But through the lineage of media technology, the two are practically blood brothers.
Their kinship-to-be began in 1947, when Crosby heard a private demonstration of a recording machine developed by an American audio engineer, John Mullin. Mullin had found a pair of German magnetic tape recording machines during his duty as a WWII surveillance specialist for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and he had shipped them home, where he tinkered with them for two years before unveiling them. He had a hunch that magnetic tape recording was an ideal fit for an expanding entertainment industry, and in Crosby, who was as much a business entrepreneur as he was a crooner, Mullin had found the perfect champion.
Impressed by the high fidelity of the recordings he heard, Crosby became convinced magnetic tape recording could revolutionize the radio business by making it possible for programs to be produced in advance for repeated airings. (Broadcasters had tried before to record programs in advance, but the sound quality yielded by the recordings they made with transcription discs was poor, and audiences hated it.)
The season premiere of Crosby’s 1947 “Philco Radio Time” show, in October of that year, was the first to be broadcast from a prerecorded magnetic tape. Crosby (correctly) saw great business potential in magnetic tape recording and invested $50,000 into what was then a small start-up company, Ampex. The company would go on to lead the commercialization of magnetic tape recording.
Although he could not have known it at the time – his intent was only to be able to record and edit his radio show in the relaxed environment of a studio – Crosby was also helping to set into motion a revolution that now exerts enormous influence over the modern media ethos.
That’s because the same fundamental magnetic tape technology that allowed Crosby to record a weekly radio show before it aired would inspire the manufacturer, Philips, and others to develop a compact variation of a magnetic tape reel known as an audiocassette. Looping a length of magnetic, recordable tape neatly across two spools inside a plastic casing, the audiocassette was invented originally for dictation systems. But as its recording fidelity improved, it quickly stormed the home audio world, supplanting reel-to-reel audio decks and stereo 8-track cartridge players. In doing that, the audiocassette became the go-to vessel for a new sort of audio handicraft known to devotees, lovingly, as the “mix tape.”
To a generation of modern youth raised on $1 digital song downloads and customized iPod playlists, it’s difficult to describe the breakthrough the audiocassette represented. Overnight, or so it seemed, music shifted from something music fans consumed to something they created. Selecting and arranging songs plucked from stacks of LP records into a unique, individualized progression within an audiocassette changed the relationship between recorded music and music listeners. What had been mainly a passive form of entertainment – buy a collection of songs on an LP and play them in the prescribed sequence determined by the artist and record label – became instead a creative endeavor in which consumers effectively assumed the role of music producer, juxtaposing songs and leapfrogging album tracks and artists entirely.
It would be easy to dismiss the mix tape as a passing fad among college kids of the pre-digital era were it not for the revolution we now know it foreshadowed. The audiocassette was the first massively available, inexpensive means of electronic content creation and sharing. For a few dollars per blank tape, circa 1980, it was possible to transform a stack of vinyl LPs into a very personalized expression of music, mood and message – and then play it really loud for your friends.
The phrase “user-generated content” wasn’t around then, but it would have been apt. The desire that fueled the mix tape movement – to create and share a unique expression – is also responsible for the 48 hours of new videos that are uploaded daily to YouTube, or the millions of media-sharing Web links posted to Facebook every day. By comparison to the instant publishing systems of the Internet, spending an afternoon carefully transferring songs from a vinyl album to an audiocassette was stultifying slow labor. But the intent – to create, publish and share personalized content – is, as Bing Crosby once sang, “the same thing in reverse.”