Inside the Collection: Love, Loss and Mix-Tapes

I was a teenage skater, which back in the eighties meant I didn’t meet many girls. But there was one – Brynn was what we affectionately called a “Skate-Betty.” She stood out from the others with her sun-bleached bowl-cut, hi-top Vans, a flannel tied around her waist and a warm California smile that gave me the courage to ask her out. We instantly bonded on music. She was into many of the same Skate Rock bands that I listened to like JFA and Agent Orange. But she also turned me on to stuff I’d never heard before like Voivod and Reagan Youth.

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Do you remember the first mix-tape you made for a crush? What about the opposite – a mix that you curated following a heart-bludgeoning break-up? As we approach Valentine’s Day, it’s easy for me to flashback to the very first amorous mix that I recorded…and my first break-up tape. Allow me to share a few of the lessons that I learned from building those mixes.

Music can be a powerful communication tool – it conveys love, lust, anger and sadness – sometimes quite blatantly. Whether it’s intentional or coincidental, the choice to play a song for someone sends him or her a message. When making a mix to woo that special someone, listen carefully to the lyrics before adding a song. If Radiohead has taught me anything, it’s that some lyrics can go from beautiful to creepy in a matter of seconds.

It’s also important to balance familiar artists with unfamiliar ones. By adding a few songs that your crush already knows, you’re saying that you validate and respect their musical taste. This will make the obscure selections more inviting. Use what you already know about what this person likes and build from that. Because that first mix should always be about making something they’d like.

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Knowing that all our bases in punk rock were covered, I wanted to make Brynn a mix-tape that wasn’t predictable. So I set the tone on Side A with some Peter Gabriel. I also made sure to pepper Brynn’s mix with New Order because I saw that she had written the band’s name on her backpack. Following this up with The Smiths was already making for a good flow. Rhythmic flow is important – nobody wants to listen to a mix that feels like riding with someone who is just learning to use a stick shift.

When you’re crafting that very first mix for someone, it’s important to eschew the more dramatic tunes for songs that are flirty and fun. You might want to save those Nick Drake tunes for an anniversary mix. When you’re getting to know one another, it’s much safer to go with some Blondie or Tame Impala. Or throw some Stereolab on there! Stereolab is like pizza – even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.

One of the most important things about making that first mix from the heart – you don’t want to come off too heavy too soon. Maybe loading up Brynn’s B-side with overly sappy serenades by The Cure and Tears For Fears wasn’t such a good idea. In hindsight, I probably scared her off by telling her that I was head-over-heels for her through music.

Of course music doesn’t always tell a love story. Some of the most effective songs muse heavily on heartbreak. The 1990s were a great era for music that’s especially brooding, melancholy and angry. A particularly memorable breakup tape from my 1990s quiver was loaded with songs from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Verve, Sebadoh, Low and of course those pre-millennial ambassadors of heartbreak – Red House Painters.

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Today’s breakup mixes don’t need to be so dramatic. Feist can make getting dumped somehow seem stylish and cosmopolitan. And Neil Halstead’s songs of love and loss are sophisticated and heady.

Another thing I’ve learned about making someone a break-up mix: don’t give it to them. Keep it for yourself to help you move through your sadness. Think of it as a self-help exercise that’s similar to typing out that angry email and never clicking “send.” Listening to the right songs while nursing a broken heart can be akin to sipping tea by the fireplace on a rainy Sunday morning.

Anyway, I sincerely hope your 2014 Valentine’s Day is far better than the sum of my nostalgia. Now that I’m a happily married man, I’d like to dedicate this Pandora station of Classic Rock Love Songs to the sweet little rocker-chick that I’m proud to call my wife.

Eric Shea

Curation Team http://www.pandora.com/profile/eshea75

13 thoughts on “Inside the Collection: Love, Loss and Mix-Tapes

  1. Hi my name is Robert! I had Pandora last year. I found out it was hurting my computer could you tell me why? I enjoyed the classic rock and country music to.

  2. As a Pandora One subscriber for several years and someone who has given Pandora gift subscriptions, I get annoyed that Pandora isn’t innovating. The fundamental software hasn’t changed in years.

    The feature that bugs me the most is that we can’t control the repetition of individual stations. We should have a slider that lets us choose more repetition or less repetition. A simple implementation of a slider like this would just change the length of time before a station would play the same song another time after it had been played once.

    Right now, every time I listen to one of my stations, it plays the SAME SONGS. I want to say that adding more song or artist seeds is not the solution because my stations already have a number of seeds. The problem is that the algorithm is tuned for people who have higher tolerance for repetition than I do.

    I’ve found two solutions to this persistent problem. The first is the easiest. I just let the station play when I’m not in the room. That way, it increments the play counts of those same songs that I love but am sick of hearing because the algorithm overplays them.

    Second, whenever I listen to a station, I choose “I’m tired of this song” for the first five songs I hear, just to give the station a clue that I need more variety.

    But fundamentally, I shouldn’t have to do these things. Rather, you should improve your service by allowing customers to change the repetition of the station.

    I mean, seriously, I can’t be the only person who has stations that they listen to every two weeks. I don’t want to to only hear my thumbs-upped songs every time I listen. Letting the station play when I’m not in the room works, but you could fix this simply just by adding a station by station slider that changes the length of the station’s memory for the last repetition of the song.

    I’m happy to explain my concerns if any part of this isn’t clear.

    • @Forest Thanks for taking the time to let us know your frustrations with your stations. Our Playlist Team continues to work on finding the right balance of familiar and new songs for our listeners. I’ll pass on your helpful feedback to them. In the meantime, try these tuning tips: http://pdora.co/tunepandora. Let us know your stations sound after some tweaking. -Alyssa

      • Thanks for passing on the feedback. I read the help document that you suggested, but all of those tips were actually things that I have been doing for years. The real problem has to do with an algorithm that doesn’t allow users to provide any feedback about whether they want more or less variety in their stations.

        For example, in my “five decades of edgy rock” and “house and electronic influenced dance-pop” stations, there clearly isn’t enough variety, even though both have upwards of 30 seeds. Somehow, however, both stations sound much better if I just let the stations play for an hour with the speakers off before I actually want to listen to them.

        As someone with academic training in computer science and someone who programs computers all day, it is quite clear to me that this problem comes down to Pandora’s algorithm. Put simply, if I can fix it by just letting my stations play when I’m not there, then it can definitely be fixed in software.

        Pandora just needs to add a per-station variety variable. It doesn’t matter whether it is something manually set by the user or something that is determined by Pandora based on the user’s use of skip controls.

        Right now it just seems like Pandora is failing to innovate. The basic functionality of the software hasn’t changed in years. I can’t be the only person who gets sick of hearing the same thumbs-upped songs on stations that get listened to once every week or two. If you don’t take care of your users, someone else will.

  3. I pay for a subscription for pandora and I cannot access my account. Please help! Every time I launch it, it tells me “quit”. I pay $3.99 a month. This has happened the last two months! Please fix it!

  4. @Forest Try creating a song-based station. The deeper the cut that you choose for your station, the more likely you’ll hear artists and songs that’ll be outside the mainstream. Let us know how it goes. -Alyssa

  5. A little late on this article, but I love it! I never made mixed tapes, but I did create playlists and burned them for friends – I was always too shy to give them to a crush.

    I’d have to say though it’s always interesting how important listening to song’s lyrics is. I’ve been listening to Passion Pit quite a bit and their song “Love Is Greed” is ridiculously upbeat. If you’re just listening to the music and not paying attention to the title or lyrics, it sounds like a positive love song – so not the case.

    Also, you totally hit spot on with Feist – her songs are smooth and simple, but can be so relateable when it comes to her lyrics, I love it! It keeps things really interesting.

    Thanks for the post – highly enjoyed it! :)

  6. You totally hit spot on with Feist – her songs are smooth and simple, but can be so relateable when it comes to her lyrics, I love it! It keeps things really interesting.

  7. Right now it just seems like Pandora is failing to innovate. The basic functionality of the software hasn’t changed in years. I can’t be the only person who gets sick of hearing the same thumbs-upped songs on stations that get listened to once every week or two. If you don’t take care of your users, someone else will.

    • Hassen, I know, right? I think that now that they are a big public company with an advertising executive as a CEO, they don’t think about anything other than maximizing revenue. When you ask for help they just tell you very basic advice about making a new station based on a song. See above comments by myself and Pandora Support. I know the software extremely well and listen to it every day. Starting a new station would just make things worse because I would have to press “I’m tired of this song” about a 100 more times to get rid of the songs that I used to love but that Pandora overplays. I don’t want to thumbs-down these songs because I really want to hear songs like them. I wish they had a button for, I used to like this song and want you to play other songs like it, but you’ve played this particular song so many times that I feel like I never want to hear it again. It would be like a mix of “thumbs up” and “I’m VERY tired of this song.” —- On the other hand, if Pandora were innovating and not just an advertising company, their algorithm would already be observing how people press the “I’m tired of this song” button in order to get a sense of their preferences for variety. It would be simple to do, but that appears to simply not be their priorities.

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