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The Good Listener: When You Make Someone A Mix, What Do They Owe You?

A really good mix CD.
Chloe Coleman

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the shampoo samples we accidentally tossed into the fireplace is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, the etiquette surrounding the giving and receiving of mix CDs.

Kevin writes: "I've been thinking a lot about mix CD etiquette. I love giving them and receiving them, and my friends have made some stellar ones, but is it appropriate to follow up on whether they like the ones I make? I put a lot of thought into them. Some friends don't say a word, and then some people (like my dad) send me track-by-track analysis of the mix. What do you think the etiquette should be here? A simple 'thank you,' or maybe a little bit more?"

Though built around other people's work, mix-making is an art form like any other, in that you put your expression out into the world and then immediately relinquish control over how and whether people choose to consume it. Some, like your dad, will listen intently and take notes; some will listen passively and at best form a vague opinion; some will form a strong opinion, good or bad, and not tell you about it; some will toss the disc into the Drawer Of Oblivion and forget it entirely; some will drive you nuts by putting it on shuffle, thus negating all the time you spent fussing over transitions between songs. But that's their call, not yours, because it's their time to spend, not yours.

It's important, with mixes, to remember that you're giving a gift and not a homework assignment. If the social contract dictated that we form and write up a detailed opinion of every gift we receive, the economy would collapse, because no one would ever buy anyone anything. So don't think of painstaking track-by-track analysis as the gold standard, though I can say from experience that such a response is intoxicatingly wonderful.

As a general rule, it's always wise to show restraint when asking for validation. As queries go, "What did you think of my mix?" is inherently inferior to "Hey, did you get a chance to check out that mix?" which is in turn inherently inferior to asking nothing and waiting for people to come to you. Think of the feedback and thanks you receive as a bonus, and remember that with mix CDs, as with life, the greatest gift is to be heard at all.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)