The Lost Art of Downloading Music and Compiling Mixtapes

Pop Culture

The Lost Art of Downloading Music and Compiling Mixtapes

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In 2003, I had two best friends. Nakul and my computer. While Nakul was imaginary and could be quite flaky sometimes, my Windows XP kept me company during most of my teenage years. It bore silent witness to my Road Rash marathons, embarrassing MSN Messenger screen names, and constantly changing Winamp skins. Despite running on a decrepit Pentium III, there was an inherent fluidity to the XP’s UI which effortlessly blended robustness with synchronised efficiency. No Windows operating system since then has quite managed to emulate that precision (Come at me, Windows 7 Fanbois!). But mostly, I love it so much because it introduced me and my fellow ’90s kids to the internet, which has played a huge role in who we are today.

The internet was still brand spanking new for my peers and I. We hadn’t quite grasped the magnitude of it and were too busy being the last generation to enjoy outdoor recreation without digital interruptions. While 12-year-olds today are “building their brand” on Instagram, we were spending our summer vacations picking up rubber balls from gutters and trying to fix clearly out-of-shape shuttlecocks. And spooling a cassette tape into shape with the help of a Natraj pencil.

In contrast, my teenage cousins today can’t imagine their lives without the endless streaming of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. They’ve never known the struggle of going to a Planet M to pick up the latest Now That’s What I Call Music CD and looking bewildered when asked what a VCD is.

But around the early 2000s, our almost-but-not-quite pastoral lifestyle hit a standstill when the beeps and clatters of dial-up modem connections began resounding in our homes.

I found that because I knew the fine art of burning an MP3 CD and curating a decent party playlist, I was immediately hot property among my batchmates.

With the advent of Limewire and other P2P file-sharing clients, all of a sudden, the era of cassettes and CDs began to crumble and the age of the MP3 was upon us. MSN Messenger Chats now went hand in hand with your favourite Winamp playlist playing in the background. All you needed was a fairly okay modem or cable internet connection, access to Kazaa or Limewire and virtually any song or video ever recorded was available to save to your hard-drive. And then of course, for you to conveniently place on your Winamp playlist.

Not to mention, Winamp, on its own, was a wondrous app. Light years ahead of its time, it really did whip the Llama’s ass. In hindsight, it’s no wonder I became a P2P junkie by eighth grade. I found that because I knew the fine art of burning an MP3 CD or curating a decent party playlist, I was immediately hot property among my batchmates. The die-hard romantics who knew I had access to Nero Burning Rom hounded me to create mushy mixtapes for their significant crushes. I was like cupid; and Hoobastank’s “The Reason” and Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” were only a few of the arrows in my arsenal. This ever-growing repertoire of eclectic tracks boasted of tens of thousands of songs spanning hundreds of genres ranging from “Bole Chudiyaan” to Foo Fighters. I had playlists for gaming, chatting, browsing, studying – even for porn. What a time to be alive!

Perhaps my nostalgia for the era of Winamp, Limewire, and the Songs.PK download boom is so intense because globally, the MP3 boom represented an “in-between” era of sorts. A strange anomaly in time where record sales were still very much a measure of success but the prospect of a digital downloads-based business model was becoming impossible for the music industry to ignore. The world began understanding just how many teenagers preferred listening to music online. Before we knew it, YouTube was born. Thus ending any need or novelty to download music.

I now see CDs in people’s houses, repurposed as decorative coasters or wind-chimes that have the dubious effect of confounding and frightening crows and pigeons. Where do we go from here? Vinyl + streaming, if you believe Rolling Stone. Earlier this year, the magazine wrote a piece titled “The End of Owning Music: How CDs and Downloads Died” and quoted one half of The White Stripes: “Jack White, arguably the most visible vinyl advocate in recent years, agrees: ‘I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl – streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living room and the den. Those will be the two formats. And I feel really good about that.’”

Thanks, Jack White, but I’m happy being a CD nostalgist. Here I am, living in an age where Netflix decides what shows I’d like to watch next, and an algorithm determines my playlist on Soundcloud. Sure, the diversity of content and ease of viewing have made my life simpler, eliding over the need to choose anything. But there’s still some days I can’t help but feel wistful for the days when, armed with just my clunky desktop and pirated MP3 burning software, I felt like a more accomplished DJ than Tiesto himself.