Feature: Mourning the Death of the Mix CD

For music fans the world over, the mix CD represents many things: escapism, existential nirvana, a place of infinite possibility and above all, the music that fills your heart with joy. In the clubber’s past, it soundtracked every night out and every staying up late to watch the sunrise in the morning. The Waveform Transmitter’s Simon Huxtable laments the dying format.

We loved mix CDs, we collected them religiously, they were a vital part of the fabric of our very being: a lifestyle choice accessory we could seldom be without. And then, in a matter of years, the saturation point was reached and we became sick of the sight of yet another fucking Ministry of Sound compilation. Then, all the big outfits tumbled. Cream, Godskitchen, Gatecrasher, Global Underground, Hed Kandi and a thousand more, destined for a life in the bargain bins of a Virgin Megastore or Tower Records. The ride we got from those mixes informed a generation of bedroom DJs on how to structure a set: how to hold court with the best DJs playing the best music in the world.

Mixtapes of our own came and went, discussed in infinite detail between wrecked mates on a Tuesday night because there was “nothing good on telly” and ultimately redone a hundred times until all the transitions were just so. There were, of course, the stand out mixes, albums so ahead of their time and groundbreaking that they pushed the very aesthetic the mix CD established. Coldcut’s 70 Minutes of Madness, 2ManyDJsAs Heard on Radio Soulwax, Joris Voorn’s Balance 014, and Kruder & Dorfmeister’s DJ Kicks opened the minds of the many and rewrote the rule book many times over.

The history of the mix CD can be traced back to the Mix Collection Volume One, compiled and mixed by Sasha and John Digweed, although debate still rages that it was in fact Billy Nasty’s JDJ volume 1. The Mix Collection ushered in a new era for dance music’s gradual homogenisation: A three CD (and tape) collection from seminal progressive house brand Renaissance, which upped the ante considerably for how the underground dance scene was being viewed by industry insiders, music fans and clubbers alike.

It opened the floodgates and soon every clubbing brand worth its salt had a mix CD on sale. Certain brands such as Global Underground, Ministry of Sound and Cream used the popularity of their club nights to inform the buying public. Soon their nights featured merchandising stands with music from the headlining DJs and the whole thing became a marketers wet dream. DJs made a great deal of money from being associated to certain brands and could pull back on touring knowing the CD would plug the financial gaps.

The void that CDs left has quickly been replaced by the digital realm and the beginnings of streaming,  But what we lost by replacing the physical format – holding the sleeve notes, learning all the lyrics, studying the artwork – was replaced by nameless ProTools-mixed perfect streams. Devoid of soul, they now fill our ears with the same systematised, formulaic drivel, leaving the hard-working bedroom DJ little opportunity to break through.

But it’s easy to become cynical, I’m sure you can appreciate. Tony Naylor, writing for The Guardian back in 2010 points out the peculiarity of the licensed mix CD in a sea of free mixes available online: “In a culture where the DJ’s collation and manipulation of individual tracks has always been more important than the artist album, the mix CD, it seems, remains dance music’s primary form of self-expression.

But even with streaming services accounting for the biggest mass upswing in music sales in twenty years, the mix CD continues to sell in physical form. Balance Music is by far leading the way with some of the Late Night Tales mixes coming a close second. Indeed, Global Underground have, over the last few years, begun reissuing high preforming back catalogue as well as commissioning new additions to their well-received series’ such as NuBreed and After Hours.

Interestingly, GU are a perfect example of the trend of creating branded content without the need for a DJ endorsement. Trading solely on their good name, it cleverly side steps the need to pay a DJ allowing more to be apportioned the costly and time consuming licensing process. Something of a dark art and seldom understood by the vast majority of the general music buying public.

Grant Richards, resident DJ at Kinky Malinky and veteran CD compilation maker mixed their addition in the later part of the mix comp hey days and feels what’s needed now for the CD mix to survive, is value added product:

“I could easily look at this through nostalgia goggles and think about old rave tape packs and how important that was to clubbers of yore, but that was a long-ass time ago and people’s accessibility to music is very different now. Instant gratification is part of the game with Shazam and people wanting to know the names of every track the power players drop.”

“However, if those same power players can compile a product that has amazing music, concept, packaging and maybe some added bonus e.g. discount code to a forthcoming gig, then I think there is a place for physical product for a niche crowd who enjoy the collectible aspect of buying music.” Where, as the humble CD compilation was once the preferred source of new music, podcasting and radio have now become paramount to the delivery of fresh new DJ mixes and whether it’s a well-known artist or a bedroom DJ, the playing field appears fairly level – no one is really making any money unless they can tour off the back of their show.

Spotify and Apple Music are fighting to corner the market by offering full DJ mix playback on their services, something that was unavailable before. Through a deal with digital distributor, Dubset, Spotify are able to analyse the mixes and attach royalties to the tracks played, so the music creators get a slice of the pie (a ‘really’ small slice) Apple on the other hand have issued new upload rules whereby the tracks have to be split up prior to upload, which will suck.

Tired of waiting for Spotify’s technology to be roll out, Proton Radio have gone ahead and designed their own. The first podcast to feature the new software was a mix by Jay Epoch which has received a lot of attention, earning the artists featured some money. Money they don’t have to wait years to receive because everything is presented correctly.

So where does that leave the physical CD? Many would suggest the days of physical product are on the decline and that the vast majority of the record buying public (we won’t count those using illegal peer to peer and subscription-based download sites) view streaming platforms such as Spotify and Rhapsody as more convenient, user-friendly portals where they can curate their own playlists, find new music at their own pace and even be alerted to their favourite bands new output and tour schedules.

However you feel about the way in which music curation and indeed the fate of the physical product we once all cherished so dearly, will evolve can’t take away from the memories we have of our favourite mixes; of reading the sleeve notes, learning the names of the artists, the producers, the mastering houses and everything else; of staring lovingly at the photographs used to illustrate the words and wishing one day to be able to go there in person.

Those are memories our children will not have an opportunity to form and I for one think that’s a huge loss to music in general.

Author: Ste Knight

Editor at The Waveform Transmitter. Lover of acid basslines, cavernous kick drums, and dark rooms. Cut his teeth to Surgeon's blistering techno assault at T-Funkshun in Liverpool and hasn't stopped for breath since.

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