While definitely a mix but not necessarily one found on tape, a "mixtape" means many different things depending on its context. The best way to approach understanding a mixtape is to think about it in the sense of what it originally meant: a re-recording of different songs onto a physical tape medium, like cassettes or reel-to-reel tape, to give to a friend or collaborator. The compilation of songs or sounds can be any length. A mixtape is literally a mix of songs compiled together as a single piece.
At this point in the music era, the ubiquitous act of releasing a mixtape has largely become synonymous with underground hip-hop and occasionally rock 'n' roll performers. That's because self-releasing and promoting a stylized compilation of original work and remixed or borrowed works can be a great way to get a project off the ground or showcase new ideas. Major acts release them, too, and largely for the same reason: creating an amorphous product that can be released without supervision or constraint for promotional purposes or building hype.
Of course, it's no longer a necessity to release the mixtape onto a tape format anymore: simply calling a set of recordings on any format a mixtape and sticking to a certain accepted formula for the tracklist and construction is enough. So, why bother even making one if they all follow a similar format? That’s the fun of it: there are no exact, hard and fast rules to what the format for a mixtape actually is. What’s more important are the benefits of actually taking the time to make a mixtape, regardless of what genre of music you play.
1. They're low pressure compared to other recordings
Unlike the way most musicians approach a major release, mixtapes can be approached with any degree of involvement. At a base level, it should showcase your own musical skills while offering listeners something interesting to listen to without switching tracks. That doesn’t mean that a mixtape can’t be an eccentric or completely experimental collection of songs. In fact, many of the best mixtapes are unique collages or made with an experimental attitude. Since there aren’t any rules, creators can do just about anything they want.
2. Their unique format is interesting to listen to
The fact that a mixtape is expected to be something unusual, a sneak peek, or something just plain out there lets your fans approach the music from a different angle than they would an album or single. Listeners will appreciate the diverse mix of sounds and added insight into the world of the musician. Mixtapes are great for listeners to just pop on and let play without having to skip around the tracklist. This makes them excellent for parties or events. And, since mixtapes don’t have a set running time, they can be as long or short as needed.
3. They expand your creativity with unconventional approaches and cross-collaboration
Because of the low pressure surrounding mixtapes, smart musicians use their creations as an opportunity to branch out and experiment with their sound. This can mean unusual instruments and songs, or even reaching out to other musicians for eclectic collaborations. Making a mixtape with this approach has the benefit of giving musicians a chance to flex their musical muscle for themselves while exploring their approach and creative flow with their craft.
4. They allow fans to get to know the real you
The unusual contents of the mixtape are best when juxtaposed with other original music from your favorite musicians. This creates an interesting tracklist that invites the listener to explore your musical psyche, introducing them to your influences and current favorites. Careful tracklisting is one of the most important parts of making a mixtape. An excellent tracklist should take its listener on a journey and stand alone as a singular entity, much like an excellent full-length release.
5. They create a new piece of music to promote
Musicians who are in between major releases usually look to the mixtape to burn off creative energy or promote new songs and ideas that are soon to be expounded upon. That’s because a mixtape is an excellent reason to reach out to contacts or create a promotional push. Its existence gives you a new reason to hit up everyone and tell them that you’ve got an awesome new mixtape to show them. Since most people don’t regularly release mixtapes, the fact that you're releasing one in any format will create attention and turn heads. Don’t just take my word for it – go and try it!
Christopher DeArcangelis is an active musician and copywriter from Chicago. He writes songs, plays guitar, and sings vocals for the rock and roll band MAMA and is the founder of the creative agency Static Free Industries.