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When I was about six years old, my sister burned me my first mix CD. I remember giving her a list of everything I wanted on it, though nearly two decades later, I can't remember what any of those songs were (other than "Follow Me" by Uncle Kracker). She charged me $18, which was about all the money I had. It seemed like a fair price at the time: a dollar per song. It was 2001. I didn't know that the disc she used probably cost her about 50 cents, or that the songs she burned onto it were probably ripped off of Napster for free; that I could do it all myself, if I just asked Jeeves about it on the family computer in our living room.
But none of that mattered. I didn't care about the music; I don't think I even knew 18 songs at that age. I just cared about the thing itself, the mix. It was a term I had heard her and my older brother throw around casually but that, to me, was imbued with a kind of magic. In my mind, a mix CD was something almost otherworldly, something teenaged and edgy and just impossibly cool. It sounds ridiculous now, but the moment I finally got one—the moment she came into my bedroom and handed me a shiny silver disc with the words "DREW'S MIX" scrawled on its face in black Sharpie—was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
Eighteen years later, mix CDs have been innovated out of existence, reduced to something we might wax nostalgic about at a party, but would never seriously consider making. Most of the ones we still have are too scratched up to play; even if they aren't, it's rare to own the outdated technology it would take to listen to them. This is the decade that mix CDs died—and with them, a little part of us died, too.
As I got older, the thrill of receiving a mix CD was supplanted by the thrill of making one. I burned them for everyone I had a crush on in middle school, painstakingly adding and removing and re-adding songs to the tracklists, changing up the order (and changing it, and changing it, and changing it again) until I was satisfied that it said "I like you" just the way I wanted it to. Then I'd sit in front of my computer, slide in a blank disc, and listen to the low whirr of the machine as it did its mysterious work, being careful not to so much as nudge it, for fear of something going horribly wrong. Once the CD finally popped out, I'd write a girl's name on the top of it in big, arcing letters, my hand shaking, knowing that if I screwed up, I'd have to start the whole 20-something minute process all over again. Then came the hardest part: mustering up the nerve to actually give it to someone.
I must have made dozens of mix CDs over the years, if not hundreds. I burned them for my friends. I burned them for my cousins. I stayed up all night with my brother one Christmas Eve burning a half dozen of them for my dad, so he'd have something new to play on the six-CD changer in his car. A mix CD helped me win over my first serious girlfriend in high school; I burned more of them for her than anyone. I can chart our relationship by those mixes, by the way the songs moved from lovestruck anthems at the outset—"Adorable One" by Lee Moses, "The Man in Me" by Bob Dylan—to ballads about heartbreak as things began to fall apart: "Blues Run the Game" by Jackson C. Frank, "Hard to Find" by The National.
I made my last mix CD in 2014; it, too, was for her. I still have trouble listening to those 21 songs, songs I used to try to explain why I had to leave our hometown, to tell her that I missed her, to show her that I still loved her, all of them sequenced just so, chosen with more care and attention than I had given to any of my schoolwork that semester. I burned them onto a disc, mailed it to her house in Atlanta, and never made another mix CD again.
Neither did pretty much anyone else.
At that point, the medium was already obsolete—I'd created the playlist on Spotify, then bought all the songs on iTunes so I could burn them to a disc. When they were invented, blank discs were touted as a next-gen solution to unreliable, labor-intensive blank tapes—a groundbreaking advancement in the way we could transfer music from one person to the next. In 2008, the same year Spotify launched, blank CDs netted $1.19 billion in sales globally, according to the Santa Clara Consulting Group, a company that studies the data storage industry. But by 2013, the year that Spotify came to mobile, sales had plummeted to $368 million. There aren't sales statistics available for 2019—tellingly, the company that used to track them no longer seems to exist—but these days, you can't even buy a blank CD at your local record store. Apple stopped selling laptops equipped with disc drives in 2016. Now, just like the mixtape before it, the mix CD has become a relic of the past.
So much has changed about the way we consume and share music over the last decade, but perhaps nothing has affected us so personally as the death of the mix CD. Sure, you can put together a playlist on Spotify or Apple Music and send the link to someone, but it's not the same as giving them a physical disc—an object loaded with meaning in and of itself. You only had so much room to convey what you wanted to say; most blank discs maxed out at about 20 songs, and you had to make each one count. You had to sequence the tracks perfectly; once you'd burned the disc, you couldn't go back into some app and reorder it. Perhaps most importantly, you can't slip a Spotify playlist into someone's mailbox at midnight; you can't stick it through a slot in their locker between classes; you can't draw on its cover, or fold a note inside its case, or spend half an hour writing every song it contains on its face in a thin, delicate spiral. You don't have to muster up the nerve to put it into someone's hands, look them in the eye, and tell them you hope they like it.
Mix CDs were such a potent token of how much you cared about someone—a physical testament to the time you'd taken to decide what songs you wanted them to hear—that it can be jarring to stumble across one now. Even just looking at an old mix CD can whoosh you back to the time in your life when you received it; to the person you were; to the way you used to think and feel. At a time when we have an infinite number of songs at our fingertips, able to be called up and played in an instant, a mix CD can remind you how small the world seemed back then. It can make you see, with fresh eyes, how dizzyingly big it seems today.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to my old high school girlfriend and asked her what she did with all those mixes I made for her. She told me her dad had found them while he was cleaning out her car before he sold it. He'd stuffed the CDs into a grocery bag, which she tucked into a drawer in her childhood bedroom. She still has them, she told me; she just doesn't have a way to play them.
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