Can you remember the last mix CD you bought? I can tell you mine. Pangaea's FABRICLIVE mix, purchased lovingly from the vending machine at Fabric itself. I would have bought it eventually anyway, to complete my Hessle FABRICLIVE trilogy, but it was nice to buy it at 4am in the same way as I'd later buy a bottle of Coke Zero for the novelty factor alone. Novelty. That's something that's missing for many people buying music today.
Who remembers that anxious wait on the bus home as you poured over the inlay card; imagining each transition, trying to work out which alias was which producer, and willing the traffic to dissipate so you could just play the damn thing? Truism alert: the industry has changed across the board since then, with music and information never more than a few clicks away. Intrigued by an unfamiliar name on a tracklist? Discogs shows you their full history, as well as all their other noms de plume. Wondering what that track is that's listed on the next Fabric mix? YouTube isn't even your only man, it's only one of a range of possibilities. You can probably already download it at Funkysouls (not that you should, of course).
But whatever about straightforward artist albums. The mix CD almost seems obsolete at this stage. Why wait and pay for a mix CD, when you've got a glut of podcasts at your fingertips every day of the week? Monday, it's Resident Advisor and FACT. Tuesday, it's XLR8R. Wednesdays, we've got Juno Plus and Truants. THUMP on Thursdays, too. All of these series share weighty offerings from artists deep in the game and just arrived on the block, with no less quality than you'd find on the high street. What's more, there's never going to be a problem with licensing, so the artists can just play whatever they want - the odd Soundcloud wrangling aside, of course.
"We see our podcasts as more of a representation of the artist and their influences as a whole, than just what they can do in the club with the latest tracks", says Juno Plus Deputy Editor Scott Wilson. "Some artists may not want to do interviews, but are happy to provide a mix, but this is fine. We feel that sometimes a mix from an artist speaks more about their musical direction than a brief Q&A ever could. For this reason, our policy on what we accept is very open. If someone wants to contribute a mix of Southern and Eastern European folk music, as was the case on our most recent mix from the head of the ΚΕΜΑΛ and Berceuse Heroique labels, then that's fine by us. As long it's been done with passion and care, we will publish it."
Tom Lea, editor of FACT Magazine, has a similar approach. "If we like an artist enough to ask for a mix, then the artist should have complete artistic freedom over it (with certain, obvious, guidelines: minimum bitrate, minimum length). I know some sites ask for specifics from artists, or veto half the mixes that they get sent in, but I think if you're gonna take enough of a punt on an artist to ask them to make you a mix, then you've gotta be true to your word".
Paul Glancy of the long-running Late Night Tales doesn't mind this healthy competition. "We started the series in a pre-digital world when CDs were the main sales format. Now that Soundcloud and podcasts are the norm this has made us raise the bar - it was pretty high anyway - in the quality of who we work with, and how we present our releases. We believe music buyers appreciate quality and are prepared to pay for it. You can't release second-rate physical product any more."
There's also one very important factor to consider with commercially released mixes. "The artists we feature also get paid, which isn't the case with a Soundcloud stream or a podcast." Getting paid, that's kind of important, right? Man and woman cannot live on exposure alone. What percentage of those who'll download or stream a podcast on Monday will click through PayPal to buy that DJ's new single, or even remember to go see them the following Friday?
With Fabric, there's an all-round experience that ties it together. The fabricfirst subscription service is one of the keys to the success of that particular mix series. Members receive mixes in advance of their release, as well as a host of other benefits.
"Our association with the venue means we can offer further benefits as part of the membership; priority entry and discount on the door, exclusive streams of sets recorded at the club, so our appeal stretches from completist music collectors around the world, to clubbers for whom getting each month's mix is a bonus to getting quicker, cheaper entry to the club," says Fabric's label manager Leo Belchetz.
It also ensures revenue, which in turn maintains the ongoing cycle of providing those very mixes. "This is vital to affording us the rare ability to support a range of artists. From showcasing our high-profile headliners through to giving a platform to lesser-renowned artists, whom many labels who go release-to-release may consider to be too great a commercial risk." For every icon like Goldie or Sir David Rodigan, there appears one from a younger name like Brodinski or Daniel Avery. The series is eclectic as the club's weekly line-ups. "We've been able to document the changing musical landscape through the years, rather than ploughing a certain furrow, subject to the fickle tides of fashion", says Belchetz.
But what of the commercial landscape? When was the heyday of mix CDs? Who knows if it ever ended, as Ministry of Sound released in excess of 50 compilations last year across their various banners - Running Trax, The Sound of, Hed Kandi and Masterpiece, to name a few. These are the ones you won't have any trouble finding in your local HMV, if you still have one. No scouring eBay or Discogs here. There was a time, however, when you could easily access garage and house CDs from Kiss, prog house journeys (literal and figurative) on Global Underground, the trance behemoth that was the Euphoria series, as well as the Clubber's Guides and Annuals from Mo
Remember the time before chillout was a bad thing, when Café Del Mar meant tracks like this?
I first came across this one on Chilled Euphoria, which I expected to contain balearic guitars and lilting vocals (something like this, which would feature on that compilation's successor). Instead, I discovered beatless reworks of trance classics ('Touched By God', Café Del Mar - of course) alongside tracks by Craig Armstrong, Primal Scream and Brian Eno. This was chillout in mindset, not just sound. It's all well and good being eclectic when page impressions and downloads are at stake, but it's a much bigger deal when there's money to be made - or lost.
It would be remiss of me to discuss mix compilations without mentioning Sasha and John Digweed, whose Renaissance Mix Collection CD in 1994, while by no means the first of its kind, was a gargantuan effort from two superstars in their field. Not for nothing did Sasha appear on the cover of Mixmag in that year under the headline "Son of God?". Reading Ministry and Muzik, and listening to these CDs, was a glimpse into a foreign world for a bookish teen like me: fully rounded, 78-minute mixes presenting a taste of eight-hour Twilo sets, and 17-hour WMC marathons.
In a pre-broadband world, it was often the only way to hear big tunes without hitting the clubs. For every breakout hit like 'Doom's Night', there were plenty of club anthems that stayed underground. 'Cascades of Colour', 'Sputnik One', these were tracks getting plenty of chat in magazines but not appearing on radio - or Irish semi-commercial dance radio. It was all Sandstorm and Groovejet back then.