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Cultural value and the mixtape by Kieran Fenby-Hulse

A while ago, Kieran posted a reflection on his blog on the mixtape as a helpful cultural object to consider in relation to some of the questions that are at the heart of the cultural value debate.  A lively debate ensued on twitter and many responded positively to Kieran’s post. Personally, I found it a delight to read, partly because the post tackled intelligently so many of the themes that are dear to me in relation to the limitations of an economic take on the value question, but – if I’m honest – also because I belong to that generation for which mixtapes marked key life moments and special relationships. The cultural value of the mixtape is, for me, not just the object of intellectual reflection but very much something deeply felt and emotional, and I am sure I’m not the only late 30s person to feel this way. So, when Kieran offered me the opportunity to reblog his post here, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. 



Measuring the Mixtape










Cultural Value is a term that is increasingly employed by policymakers and scholars to describe the range of benefits cultural activities have on individuals, communities, towns, cities, and businesses (to name a few). Although a somewhat palpable concept – when we go to the theatre we feel as if the play, say, has had an effect on us – cultural value is a slippery concept as there is currently no clear-cut definition and no easy way of understanding or assessing the value of a cultural act. Despite the complexity, trying to identify, determine and evidence what might constitute cultural value is important as it can not only affect policy and arts funding, but also help us to understand our relationship to the arts, our culture, and the world around us. (For more on thinking about different approaches to understanding cultural value see Belfiore, E. & Bennett O. (2010) ‘Beyond the ‘toolkit approach’: Arts impact evaluation research and the realities of cultural policy-making’, Journal for Cultural Research, 14.2. )

For some time now, I have been looking at the nature of the cassette-based mixtape of the 80s and 90s, an artefact and social activity that I find particularly fascinating when looked at from the perspective of cultural value. The mixtape was primarily a way by which to share music. Both an artefact and a social activity, mixtapes consisted of a carefully selected sequence of musical tracks and were often used to accompany a specific event or activity or gifted to friends and/or loved ones. Meticulous planning of the tracks was essential. As the character Rob describes in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity:

Making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again…You’ve got to kick off with a corker, but hold the attention…and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you…can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules. (Nick Hornby, High Fidelity, Riverhead Trade, 1995, 88-89)

As well as drawing attention to the planning involved, Hornby also connects the act of making a mixtape with that of writing a letter, suggesting that the mixtape requires a personal and emotional investment from the creator (and perhaps also the listener). Blending medium with message, art form with artefact, the mixtape acts as an emotional and affective conduit between the creator and the user, a shared experience where making and consuming are each important parts of the process.

In a way, the mixtape complicates a simple economic approach to understanding cultural value. While we could calculate the amount of blank cassettes sold, it is the transformative process of making and consuming that is key to the value that many listeners ascribe to the mixtape. Indeed, the mixtape is tied to notions of individual and group identity and the development and formation, in particular, of teenage identities and teenage relationships.

Providing a haptic and a sonic experience that combines creativity with craft, the mixtape provides a material and sonic space that allows creators and listeners to explore identity politics and forge an identity (or series of identities) in relation to the social groups in which they participate and interact. The question, then, is how do we assess the value of this haptic, material, and sonic experience? How do we calculate the benefit to the individuals who receive mixtapes and to those that create them? And, importantly, how do we bring into alignment the process of making and doing with the process of consuming in our understanding of cultural value?

The development of digital playlists further complicates these questions, as playlists can now be shared globally to a range of different networks and social groups. What does it mean to share these emotionally invested and carefully curated playlists with people from different locations, geographies and cultures? How do we understand this idea of sharing, and are there cross-cultural political ramifications to sharing artistic identities. (Indeed, the mixtape began as a reaction to the music industry and consumer culture, providing a disillusioned youth culture with a means to challenge the music industry and the idea of pre-packaged music for consumption).

The aim here isn’t to answer these questions, but to draw attention to them and the complex issues that require further and detailed exploration. To understand cultural value we need to undertake a multidisciplinary investigation into individual creativity and shared experience. We need ask what it means to imprint our identity on an object, and what it means to put our name to something. We need to explore what we learn and gain from communicating through music and art (rather than language) and think about how we might understand (and measure?) notions of emotional attachment and enchantment. Are these quantifiable concepts, and how can we address the fact that understandings of the mixtape, say, will change over time and with each person, community, and culture that engage with processes of making and listening to mixtapes.



I am currently employed as a Researcher Development Officer at Bath Spa University and am primarily responsible for delivering and developing research development workshops and online training materials to support both postgraduate researchers and research staff. Complementing the work I am currently undertaking, my research focuses on two distinct areas. The first is concerned with understanding, developing, and supporting creative approaches to research and practice-led research. The second explores notions of impact and the relationship between audiences, experiences and cultural value.

My research is of a thoroughly interdisciplinary in nature, and combines ideas and methodologies taken the arts, humanities, and social scientists. A recent research project I have undertaken has examined the relationship between music and narrative and whether a study of music as narrative can inform our understanding of the ways in which we experience (and consume) music. Focusing on the impact digital media has had on how we listen to, understand, and “curate” music, I have compared the cassette-based mixtape with the recent development of the online playlist to examine how ideas of mediation, narrative, emotional attachment, identity, and sociability can affect our listening experience. Thus far my research has been theoretical in approach, although I am currently undertaking a practice-based experiment that investigates the curatorial and creative possibilities of Web 2.0 technologies (such as Spotify and Pinterest) to create an online and engaging musical experience. My other research interests include: the relationship between craft and digitally-mediated environments, the relationship between music, gender and the body, songwriting and storytelling, and the music of Hindi film.


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