San Francisco Mixtape Society

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW

Last month in San Francisco, a group of self-proclaimed music geeks got together at a bar in the Mission district. They were fulfilling the time honored tradition of swapping homemade music mixes on CD's, cassettes, and USB's – known collectively as mixtapes. This event was the first of a quarterly gathering called San Francisco Mixtape Society. There are other official and non-official events of similar interest going on around the country.

The concept is, music-loving strangers to come together, equipped with a mixtape of their own, ready to swap with other music lovers. The mixes must follow a universally prescribed theme; this first one was "Cities vs. Towns." And to make things interesting, they have a panel of judges who vote on the best track listings, artwork and packaging. The event is motivated, primarily, by the universal interest in sharing and discovering music; however with music geeks there is always an underlying competition involved.

Producing a compelling mixtape is not easy. It requires forethought, research and an ability to recognize the creative magic of a song. Even with the best choices selected for a mixtape, sequencing is often where the mixtaper falters. Music has the ability to take us anywhere, and editing those moments together in a cohesive way without jerking us through the process is an art form. A proper mixtape must communicate a point; it should have a flow, and it must be a statement about the author. As Nick Hornby explained in his novel High Fidelity, when it comes to mixtapes "there are loads of rules." But really, the guiding principle behind a good mixtape is to put thought into it, a lot of thought.

Ever since Apple introduced the shuffle and Genius feature on their products, cohesive mixes have become a rarity. Most music consumers settle for convenience and click the shuffle button on their device to mix things up; which is why events like the San Francisco Mixtape Society are so interesting. They encourage music fans to step back and focus on the whole mixtape, not just its parts.

While events like these do raise ethical questions about sharing music, there is a clear value to discovering new music. As Peter Arko, an attendee and music blogger explained, "Many people come to the event hoping to leave with a single mix CD. But based on recommendations, they may leave the event now interested in checking out four or five new artists, either by buying an album or going to see them live." For labels and management companies, this is exactly the type of event to support. It unifies fan bases and can initiate word of mouth promotion. In fact the first San Francisco Indie Mixtape Society was sponsored by the great indie record label, Matador.

Before FM radio, there were no mixtapes. AM radio was a thoroughly hit single commercial venture, one that required deejays to play music on the basis of their ratings, their advertisers and their bosses. FM radio broadened the scope of enjoyment dramatically, and most deejays were symbolically mixtape deejays, playing the music they loved, with few editorial constraints. But that style of radio lost much of its popularity in the late 70s and personal mixtapes have picked up the thread since then.

It's encouraging to know that while the music industry scrambles to maximize its digital future, music fans are still interested in connecting with each other, analog style, and sharing the music they love for free. While the art form of mixtapes is the driving force of these events, it's still about sharing great music for free.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.