The Compilation Tape Commandments

Just When You Thought It Was As Simple As Pressing Record And Play

by Michael McCarthy

Illustration by Ans Purins

Originally published in Lollipop magazine issue 44, Summer ’98.

Make no mistake about it, the fine art of making a compilation tape is a surprisingly complex process that requires a bit of thought and discipline. Well, at least if you like to maintain a degree of respect among your peers. That’s right, one out of place song and even your closest friends may no longer acknowledge your existence. At least when it comes to music. They may tolerate or even find amusement in the fact that you like House Of Pain right now, but put one of their tunes on a jazz mix tape, and you’ll be a laughingstock. Hell, people will run when they see you coming through the infamous Tower Records turnstile. Rest assured, such a disaster can be avoided. To help you with this, I’ve sacrificed dozens of brain cells and TDK D90s, while breaking every bloody copyright law in existence, in preparation of this article.

First of all, it’s my duty to inform you that you can’t make someone a compilation tape out of the blue. Not unless you’re in love with them or you’re in the process of establishing yourself as your community’s leading egomaniac. Make someone a compilation tape without proper invitation and they’ll either think you’re in love with them or, even worse, trying to impose your musical tastes. For the record, most women I’ve encountered are actually more upset by a guy trying to force his way into her stereo than a guy trying to force his way into her, um, heart. Now, we all know that you are trying to force your way into someone’s stereo when you make a compilation tape, and some really sharp people (especially Lollipop subscribers) will always be wise to it, but most people (especially Boston Globe readers) can be fooled if you present your compilation tape under proper circumstances.

So, what are the proper circumstances? How does one get a tape-making invitation/opportunity? Simple. You wait until someone expresses interest, however casual it may be, in a song that you happen to have. Now, if they should say, “I really like the new single by Gas Monkey,” and you have the freakin’ album, keep your stinking mouth shut. Why? You want to make a compilation tape, damn it! Say you have the album and that’s what you’ll be taping. Or, even worse, they’ll ask to borrow it. And don’t dare waste your breath saying you have the particular song in question because they might ask if you have the album and, boom, there goes your tape-making opportunity. Hell, don’t even mention that you have the single because, as with an album, they could ask to borrow it. Duh. Hate to break it to ya, but if you truly intend to on becoming the compilation tape fucking master in your circle of friends, you can’t let anyone borrow a damn thing. Unless, of course, they’ve already heard songs from a certain disc you own on a previous compilation tape you made and then insisted on borrowing it.

Once you have a tape-making opportunity, you should procrastinate. That’s right, procrastinate. For a few days. Anticipate the tape to be, listening to possible tunes and jotting down little notes. This is a must and should be considered foreplay. Besides, if you hand them a compilation tape the day after they mentioned whatever song you’re using as an excuse to make the tape, they’ll know you were holding out and that you’re just trying to manipulate your way into their stereo (didn’t we just go over this?). You must lead them to believe that you picked up the album/single in question after you last spoke to them and decided to tape them the song they’d mentioned as a courtesy, at which point you figured you’d make them a tape with a bunch of other stuff they might dig. Simple enough, right?

When you think you’re finally wet enough to press record and begin the magical tape-making process, you must first consider the Compilation Tape Commandments. There are, despite what you may think, quite a few of them. And I’m about to reveal them all, for the first time ever, jeopardizing my own life (Fox TV won’t be able to make their special now!). So, turn down your freakin’ stereo and pay attention. Better yet, photocopy this article (you obviously don’t give a fuck about copyright infringement if you’re making compilation tapes) and hang it on your bedroom wall for quick and easy reference when you forget (because I know you will – it took me years to memorize these rules (after “obtaining” them from a certain “Megastore Corporation”)).

I. The biggest – and I mean biggest – compilation tape commandment is actually the simplest to obey: Do not, under any circumstances, feed the Gremlin after midnight. He’ll eat all of your blank tapes and play frisbee with your favorite gold CDs (like anyone actually buys gold CDs). Seriously, compilation tape commandment number one: Never put the song they want first. Yes, that would be the song you’re using as an excuse to make the tape in the first place. Reason being, they’re inclined to use the tape as a “cassingle” (oh, I hate that word), rewinding it immediately after said song is over and possibly never listening any further. Personally, I think there ought to be a federal law encouraging them not to do this, but, until then, you’ll have to heed the commandment as a precaution.

II. That said, commandment number two: The song they want should always be on side one. Always. If you put it on side two, it’s obvious that you’re holding out in some pathetic attempt to make them listen to your music of choice. They’ll know you just wanted an excuse to make them a compilation tape and they’ll laugh at you as they call your bluff. Even after you’re dead. Your best bet? Make the song track three or four. In fact, leading audiophiles insist it must be one or the other.

III. Compilation tape commandment number three: Never start the tape with a ballad. Unless it’s for your lover. This should be obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of compilation tapes I’ve received in my lifetime that start off with “Heaven.” Sometimes it’s “Heaven” by Bryan Adams and sometimes it’s “Heaven” by Warrant, but it’s always hell when it’s coming from someone I don’t want to have sex with. So, what do you start the tape with? Something upbeat, damn it! Something catchy enough to get their attention and make them forget that you’re a selfish twit invading their stereo.

IV. Now, commandment number four (and this is of utmost fucking importance): The second track must be one of two things:

    1. Even catchier than the first. 2. Decidedly laid back.

Which is best? Well, obviously that depends on your first track and, tragically enough, I can’t make all your decisions for you. Sorry. The bottom line is that the second track should not be too similar to the first. If it is, your victim – er, listener – is liable to lose interest and consider you a really boring person. Maybe even a really boring person who needs to get laid (and, no, they won’t offer any assistance there). Interestingly enough, record companies used to use this rule when arranging the order in which tracks appear on an album, but now they just put all the good songs first. Blame that on MTV and idiots with short attention spans, who supposedly shut off a CD after twenty minutes.

V. Speaking of similarities, diversity is nice, but (compilation tape commandment number five) it must be consistent. One rap song on a metal tape will get you ridiculed. Unless, of course, it’s the Beasties’ “Fight For Your Right (To Party).” In that case, your friends will be like, “Uh, I already have that song.” If you’re going to mix genres, you really have to mix them. Movie soundtracks that are all over the map, such as True Romance, always rule. Movie soundtracks that are mostly one thing and a little of something else, such as the mostly alternarock and slightly rap Scream 2, suck. Same applies to compilation tapes. Your safest bet is obviously to stick with one genre, in which case you can diversify chronologically as desired. Just don’t mix old Metallica with new Metallica because the new Metallica will suck even more if you do that.

VI. Commandment number six: You should not put songs they already have on a compilation tape. Would you take a date to see a movie they’ve already seen? Without asking them if they mind? Same principle applies here. Even if the tape is for a completely platonic friend, you’ll come off looking like a royal rat bastard – and a boring one at that – if you drag them to a movie they’ve already seen and own on VHS.

VII. Want to look like a loser? Break commandment number seven by putting two tracks by the same artist back to back. Go ahead, try it. See what kind of reaction it gets you. The only time this is cool is when the entire tape is arranged in such a fashion, but even that can (and will) get kind of old. Fast. You don’t listen to New Hampshire’s WGIR on their rock block weekends, do you? Shame, shame, shame if you do.

IIX. Commandment number eight: If you insist on putting multiple songs by the same artist on a given compilation tape, one song on each side of the tape is the way to go. If you must include three, put one on side one, one toward the beginning of side two and the other toward the end of side two. But never as the first or last song on either side. That valuable piece of advice was obtained by an exiled government agent who should have known better and now spends his days reading The Drudge Report on the Internet.

IX. Commandment nine: Quotes are fine, so long as they do not come from Tarantino movie soundtracks. Sorry, but that’s just too fucking easy. If you want to be lazy, at least lift your quotes from a Sam Kinison disc. I promise he won’t complain. Better yet, fuck laziness and be creative. Hook your VCR up to your receiver and grab quotes directly from your favorite films. Bear in mind, of course, that putting an entire scene on audio tape is a very risky proposition. Also, once you’ve put a half-dozen quotes on side one, you’re required to put the same number (approximately, of course) on side two. Consistency, consistency.

X. Commandment ten? You must give your tape a good title. No, a damn good title. And don’t be a wanker and name the tape after a song you put on there. Bands can get away with that crap because they’re the ones performing the album, but you’re just compiling the music of others. Despite how confused you may be (especially after reading this article), you simply must sacrifice a few brain cells in coming up with an original title on your own. Combine a few song titles if you must, but I don’t recommend it.

UPDATE: Since I first published this hugely popular article people stopped making compilation tapes in favor of mix CDs.  Now they’ve (mostly) stopped making mix CDs in favor of playlists.  It’s all good to me.  Same rules apply, regardless of the medium the mix will be presented in.  Have fun!

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Written by

Paris365

An entertainment journalist for 20 years, Michael McCarthy was a columnist and contributing editor for the magazines Lollipop and LiveWire. He co-created and wrote for Cinezine, one of the '90's most popular movie E-zines. The only time he's not listening to music is when he's watching television shows and movies or reading, usually music magazines.

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