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Tapes 'N' Tapes

Bringing strangers together via the International Mixtape Project

"The making of a great compilation tape is hard to do, and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."

Rob Gordon (John Cusack), High Fidelity.

For anyone who has ever spent hours poised over a dual cassette deck, fingers hovering over the pause, play and record buttons, listening intently through a pair of well-worn headphones, the above is much more than a few lines from a movie. CD burners may have replaced tape decks as the most common means to this end, but one essential fact remains: Making a great mixtape is indeed an art form, one cherished and celebrated every month by the members of the International Mixtape Project.

IMP is the brainchild of Ryan Goldman, a 29-year-old mixtaper now living in Chicago. Back in 2003, while writing for über-hip music site pitchforkmedia.com, he had a revelation.

In the wake of the Napster/P2P file-­sharing fiasco, he began to have doubts about the Internet's usefulness in providing a natural exploration of music and a true dialogue about how it affects our lives. That November, IMP was born. As its Web site (internationalmixtapeproject.com) puts it, "Why settle for hijacking the odds and ends of a stranger's hard drive when you could ask that same stranger for a compilation of his or her favorite songs in a cohesive, smart, lovingly compiled mix?"

Essentially, the Project is a rotating pen-pal program, with mixtapes being exchanged instead of — although frequently accompanied by — personalized letters. Each month, IMP members exchange these lovingly compiled mixes after receiving the name and mailing address of another IMP participant via e-mail.

As for the mixes themselves, creativity is the name of the game. Goldman usually suggests some type of theme for the month's mix, but it is up to each member to decide how (or if) to follow it. Suggested themes have covered everything from autobiography — each mixtaper was invited to select a song representing each year of his or her life — to the familiar "desert island" mix, songs they'd take along on an extended hospital stay.

More often than not, though, IMPers take matters entirely into their own hands. Recently I received a three-CD set (two bonus discs, due to lateness) from Meatbreak, an IMPer in the UK. One mix consisted almost exclusively of unsigned acts from his stomping grounds of Brighton. Meatbreak has sent out many similar mixes, championing his scene and offering rare insight to his international audience.

There are a few firm rules governing the Mixtape exchange, the most important being that each mix must be an original creation of the IMP participant sending it, though the same mix can be sent repeatedly. Copies of commercial compilations, whole albums by a single artist, or mixtapes received from other IMP members are not allowed. The only other requirements are that each mix must include the month and year it was sent, note the fact that it's an IMP mix and be packaged in some sort of protective case. Artwork is optional, but always encouraged.

Goldman never intended IMP to be much more than a conduit for him and his friends to discover new music. It was, he says, "25 close friends at first, strewn across the U.S., mostly in major cities — it wasn't intended to be a business or a growing sort of thing." Today, the IMP boasts more than 1,000 members spread across 30 countries.

IMP's exponential growth happened the way such things usually do: word of mouth. In addition to smitten participants gushing to their friends and anyone else willing to listen, bloggers have played an important role, eventually tipping off major media to the group's existence. IMP has garnered attention from Rolling Stone, ReadyMade, The BBC Collective and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

Goldman originally processed all membership requests, sending out mix assignments to as many as 1,000 members by hand; IMP existed only as a MySpace profile. But all the attention actually forced him to suspend new memberships at one point. Thankfully, a tech-savvy friend offered to help Goldman put together a Web site with automated tools for facilitating registration and assignments.

In January, IMP went up at its current URL. The new site has a standard social networking site's usual bells and whistles, but also allows members to upload track lists and cover art for their mixes. The home page displays a "Featured Mixtaper" and "Featured Mixtape" on a rotating, seemingly random basis, inspiring members to browse profiles and find common ground with their mixtaping brethren. For most, it seems, the thrill of the project is not the end result, but the what, how and why of the creative process — the sheer joy of making something from scratch.

"Mixtapes have that old-school mail-art feel to them," says Electramummy, a mixtaper living on one of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. "They were actually created by human hands, and not filtered through TRON."

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