rest assured. This article has no notion of trends. It does not seek to recount the beginning of a movement or the blossoming of some musical fad. It neither features the rise of tomorrow’s next big thing nor reflects on the demise of yesterday’s once-popular now-fading phenomena. Moreover, this is not a confession. It is not the memoir of a tortured soul grasping at music for salvation. There is little fear, even less loathing, and hardly any carburetor dung.

In fact, there are very few personalities involved at all. Those we do encounter are not outsized. That is to say, they are not especially cool, genius-like, eccentric, or for that matter, larger than life. But that’s just fine because this article is about just one small thing: the mixtape I receive in the mail every month from a complete stranger.

Indeed, every month a mixtape shows up in my mailbox. Every month it comes from a different stranger. Meanwhile, every month I make a mixtape and send it out to an altogether different stranger. This is the International Mixtape Project, a growing non-community of nearly 100 strangers sharing music in the form of original mixtapes. The Project itself is not especially complicated or revolutionary, but it is an interesting and cherished part of my everyday musical experience. It provides a significantly quirky and valuable lens through which to regularly examine and ponder music and its role in my and others’ worlds.

There’s a big list of people and corresponding mailing addresses. Around the first of the month, Person X—let’s call him Joshua Tree—gets an email with the address of Person Y—let’s call her Abbey Road. So Josh makes a mixtape and mails it to Abbey. Meanwhile, Abbey was busy making a mixtape of her own and sending it to yet another address, the home of Person Z—let’s call him Pablo Honey. And on and on it goes. Maybe Pablo sends me, Rob, a mixtape, because I’m part of the Project and Pablo has received my address in his monthly email. Maybe, that month, I find myself sending you a completely different mixtape—that is, if you are part of the Project and I have received your address in my monthly email. Of course, way on down the line, someone to whom you sent a mixtape this month, sent a mixtape to someone who sent a mixtape to someone who sent a mixtape to someone who was responsible for sending a mixtape to Josh, the very first guy. Peace, harmony, instant karma, circle of life, and God Bless America.

The person responsible for sending out all of those emails, Ryan Goldman—let’s call him Kid A—created the Project in November 2003 and has been its driving force ever since. The effort started with about 20 members. Most were strangers to one another: their only previous connection was some sort of friendship with Goldman. He and I attended the same university, way back when.

Goldman, who is now twenty-seven, is my music friend. He loves to talk about music, read up on music, learn about new music, see live music, and generally absorb himself in the stuff. But more importantly, when he gets into some really good music, he loves to share it, to shout from the roof of his D.C. apartment building: “Listen to this! This is incredibly great!”

And that’s incredibly great for me because, being lazy and appreciative of his insight, I have long used Goldman as a sort of sherpa to guide me across the treacherous and often daunting new music scene. Of course, I’m not saying that, if left to my own devices, I would be listening to Matchbox 20 and Train all day, drinking Mountain Dew, eating cat food, and banging my head against a wall. I’m just saying that it’s nice to know the guy.

Today, almost a year and a half since the Project’s formation, about 10 of the original participants remain. They are now joined by many more who bring the total number to nearly one hundred. Friends have invited other friends, roommates, significant others, siblings, coworkers, and neighbors, helping the Project to grow in size and shape. By now, Goldman knows less than half of the participants outside of the Project. Trees of people grow out of individuals who are especially fond of spreading the mixtape gospel. Pods of mixtapers have formed in random cities—Albuquerque, St. Paul, Atlanta—and its reach has spread to souls in far off climes like Mexico, Honduras, Alaska, and Canada.

Recently, Goldman and fellow Project participant, Seth Darr (who joined up through a friend whose friend was Goldman’s roommate) have developed a website to administer the program. Previously, Goldman had intentionally limited the number of new mixers entering the Project. Each month he’d spend hours sending out the first monthly emails, and still more time following up on slackers who had let things slide. Now that Darr, an amateur web guru, has volunteered to put something together for the Project, it has meant less hours of slogging through the list for Goldman every month, and much more opportunity for the Project to grow in its size and reach.

There are few rules for participants. Tape cassettes or burnt CDs are equally cool. Keep up with your end of the responsibility and send out your mixtape on time. Everyone puts in some effort, and everyone gets something in return. But, if that may seem a bit Marx and Engels in its old-timey cooperative philosophy, the Project actually falls a lot closer to Bluto and Otter in its anything-goes Animal House aesthetic.

When making a mixtape, you can include what you like, as long as the mix, as a whole, is exactly that, an original mix. As Goldman writes, welcoming members to the experiment, “You can't just copy Now! 14 or Best of Bath and Body Works and call it your own, but compilations of Hip-Hop Klassiqs Featuring Yes Samples and Songs about Massachusetts are fair game (as are un-thematic mixes, which are the norm).” Essentially, mixes can be about anything or nothing; and if you wish, you can re-use your own mix-tape, sending the same one each month to your newly assigned person and address.

Cover art and messages about the mixing process are not required but always welcome. I most often get simple track listings scrawled out in pen or typed up on a word processor. Other times, they’ve been decorated with colored pencil, stickers, and glitter. One had a big headline: Rob’s Mixtape. I thought, “At last!” And this month, when I received my Out Like a Lion mix, each song and performer had a corresponding website listed. One cover featured the mixer’s collage work, another had her original photography. I’m still waiting for the one that comes with uncooked macaroni and sharp moving parts pasted to the front.

What’s so special about a project like this? After all, humans have probably been sharing mixtapes, or something like them, since the dawn of time. Imagine one of those educational videos and cue the late Troy McClure: “Even in Ancient Samaria traveling bards or so-called ��walkmen’ have passed down the people’s history through complex, constantly evolving, and, one might say, ��mixed’ tales sung for the amusement, education, and caution of young and old alike…”

More recently, you don’t need to have sent off for your fifth bootleg featuring Jerry Garcia jamming away on a 35-minute long version of “Uncle John’s Band,” live from the Worcester Centrum, June ��79, to realize that there’s something rewarding about collecting music and something even more rewarding about gathering it for free through some sort of communal swapping arrangement. Today, the Internet, new technology, and people dancing to the songs of U2 in black silhouette on our television screens have made sharing songs even more commonplace.

But, Goldman says, mixtapes, and this sort of project, are different enough from the mechanisms that we’re used to: old-school Napster, Soulseek, Kazaa, really, any type of peer-to-peer file sharing, or plain, old mp3 blogs, not to mention even more technically legal stuff like iTunes or new-school Napster. He thinks those tools help most people most of the time by satisfying one of two opposite needs. Either: 1) you’re looking for something supremely commonplace and insanely popular, the latest hit that everyone has, and you must have too, and you need it right now; or 2) you’re searching for something that may be: entirely obscure, otherwise inaccessible, intensely personal; or, perhaps, incomplete in your mind, a cloudy memory, a vague blip, half of a song that you remember catching on the car radio a year ago while driving a rented blue Dodge Neon into the twilight along California State Route 140 between Yosemite and Merced; or nothing specific at all.

Instead, mixtapes fall somewhere in between these two huge populations. They represent a strange collision of the cerebral and the emotional, because they most directly satisfy the need, not of the seeker, but of the sender. They are the mixer’s art, while the mixer’s medium is the art of others. It seems that for many, putting together a mixtape, is much more rewarding than receiving one.

Making a mix can be masochistic. There is some pleasure to be derived from struggling miserably to make something perfect by smashing together chunks of music swiped from complete albums, creating something that both sounds right to you and strikes a chord with its recipient. Of course, mixes can be romantic—you can make one for your girlfriend and agonize over the message that every single goddamned song will send (or you can make one for your friend who is a girl and really, really agonize). Obviously, mixes can be strictly nostalgic—you can make one labeled Summer ’94 featuring Weezer and Lisa Loeb, and it will be the absolutely freaking coolest shit! you’ve ever heard, every single time you hear it. But, the process of making a mix can also aim to scratch much more discrete (and hopefully, discreet) itches—Thin Lizzy Songs That I Listen To While Shaving My Back.

Whatever it is, people enjoy the process. I spoke to a lot of Project participants about their experience and the one thing that most people discussed most energetically were the rituals and intricate details of making the mix just so and choosing the tunes just right—the project’s equivalent of tapping cantaloupes in the produce aisle of your grocery store.

Some talked about scouring their collections for enough songs to fill out a thematic compilation. Some fell upon one perfect song, had to include it, and built the mix outward like a growing crystal of rock candy. Others struggle to create something for a complete stranger, and so imagine a particular person, a friend, for whom they are creating a mix. One participant, a Democrat, found solace after last November’s election by spending a lot of time constructing his blue state mix, which included, among others, Loretta Lynne’s “Portland, Oregon,” Sonic Youth’s “New Hampshire” and Sufjan Stevens’ “Flint.”

I don’t know why, but once I complete a mix, I like to run through it, quickly listening to only the first four seconds of a track and then quickly skipping on to the next—a sort of rapid-fire Name That Tune solitaire. If it all sounds right in that way, then I’m satisfied. A little OCD, I suppose, and, of course it’s doubtful that anyone who receives the mix will listen to it in such a manner. But like most mixers, much of the joy for me lies in the creation.

Many have said that, in their lives, they have long created mixes obsessively but were sick of forcing them unsolicited on friends. The Project provides an outlet for a community of music fans with a desperate need to share. Who really cares if the listener really likes the stuff, as long as you had a blast putting it together? It is as if someone marooned were endlessly casting out messages in bottles, not because he wanted to be rescued (in fact, he actually really digs the serenity of this deserted island), but because he thoroughly enjoys writing messages and hucking bottles into the ocean.

Of course, that does not mean the International Mixtape Project is just a large group of bearded hermits tilting at windmills with a spool of cheap CD-Rs in one hand and a Sharpie in the other. In fact, participants frequently communicate with one another about their mixes, include songs they’ve received on their next month’s mix, and follow new bands that they heard for the first time on a mix. And just as the constantly growing network of people involved continues to branch out through random connections and relationships, so too does the music that’s being exchanged.

But, it does mean that authenticity is key. “Put sincerity together with a hobby,” Goldman says. “That’s how things become cool.” Indeed, there’s no room for pretense, no oxygen for it to breath. No matter what genres or eras it comes from, the music involved here is the kind that has genuinely moved people. It’s the sort that makes them want to share. It is creative in such a way that it compels participants to make that mixtape, a creative act of their own. And so ultimately, the Project comes down to a community of people standing tall every month and shouting, “You have to hear this!” And then, they listen.

Anyone interested in joining the Project should send their name and mailing address to this e-mail address with ��International Mixtape Project’ in the subject line.

By: Rob Lott
Published on: 2005-03-14
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