10:00 am EDT, November 1, 2017

The Death and Resurrection of the Fanmix

Fanmixes have had a bumpy road, but recently made a comeback thanks to Spotify. Now they’re caught on with #brands.

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, or one of the 140 million people who use Spotify, you may already be aware that series’ co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss recently released a themed playlist for season 7.

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Unlike a soundtrack, the playlist doesn’t actually contain any music from the show, but a collection of tracks from a wide range of artists aimed at musically and lyrically evoking the season’s narrative. This isn’t anything new, of course: the practice of creating playlists themed around a beloved book, movie, or other media source has been around since fans first encountered the mixtape. What is new, however, is the extent to which these playlists — what fandom calls “fanmixes” —
have made the transition to non-fan audiences.

When I first became involved in fandom, back in 2003, the Internet was still largely uncharted territory for me. I had just finished reading the first three Artemis Fowl books on an eleven-hour bus trip to Ireland, and I was overwhelmed with urgent feelings about the experience, with nowhere to put them.

artemis fowl

Back home, in the designated computer room of our house, I found a place: the Internet. Online, there were people who felt the same way about Artemis and his friends as I did, and with the same fervor. Not only did they feel the same — they’d even found something to do with the feeling. For some, it was a question of writing it out in fan-fiction; for others, making fanart of the characters they loved so much. For me, as for many, it started out as writing, and then I discovered fanmixes.

As with most fan creations, fanmixes vary widely according to individual styles and preferences. Some fanmixes tell a story, while others focus on capturing a mood or embodying a theme or character. Some attempt to use songs appropriate to the era of their subject—such as this Peggy Carter fanmix—while others prioritize musical or lyrical appropriateness over historical accuracy. When I first came across them, fanmixes were also surprisingly sprawling, mixed-media things. Aside from their musical content, they often came with annotations, the way you might enclose a tracklist and some doodlings in a mixtape.

Annotations could be snippets of lyrics, quotations from the source material, or cover art and other graphics. Some fans even combined their fanmixes with another type of fanwork entirely, for instance interleaving each song with a short paragraph of fanfiction or a quick sketch of fanart.

As a result, fanmixes of this era often had to get creative to deal with the limitations of their hosting platforms. In the early 2000s, a fanmix couldn’t be contained or shared in a single online space: rather, it had to be spread out across several platforms, each with their own capabilities. When publishing a fanmix, fans would typically upload the songs as a .zip file on a file-sharing site like MegaUpload, and provide the link in a text post on a popular social networking space like LiveJournal. Depending on the creator’s style, the post introducing the fanmix might be barebones or annotation-heavy, but it would usually include at least a title, a tracklist, and a note on content.

Was this a fanmix about Han Solo and Leia’s epic love, for instance, or one charting Anakin Skywalker’s corruption? With potentially slow Internet connections to reckon with, it was especially important to get a feel for a fanmix before committing to the work of downloading it, unzipping it, and queueing it for listening. Fanmixes were shaped around these restrictions, with etiquette developing around link sharing, uploading individual tracks on request, password protection, and warnings for particularly graphic-heavy content.

In August 2008, the fanmix landscape underwent a dramatic shift. 8tracks, a website for curating and sharing audio playlists, was launched and immediately became a hit with fans online. 8tracks proved to be a game changer for fanmix communities, but the impact wasn’t immediately obvious. With its focus on social networking, 8tracks offered fans many of the same capabilities as LiveJournal—liking, bookmarking, and commenting on each other’s content—while also making streaming a viable alternative to the more cumbersome file-sharing for listening to mixes.

8Tracks Website

Thanks to a partnership with Soundcloud, 8tracks even made compiling mixes easier, too, with fans no longer needing to own a song in order to use it. Finally, unlike file-sharing websites, 8tracks offered inbuilt support for some of the annotations that typically accompanied fanmixes at the time, such as one-sided cover art and textual track annotations for lyrics. For the first time, fans had an easy way of creating, sharing, and consuming fanmixes in a single online location.

In practice, however, 8tracks’s support for annotations was so limited and temperamental they often weren’t worth the trouble. Although many fans would crosspost their 8tracks fanmixes to Tumblr for increased visibility, Tumblr similarly made annotations cumbersome to format, and the effort seemed contrary to 8tracks’s ease and simplicity. Before long, mixes with lyrical snippets and accompanying graphics other than cover art had become few and far between, and generally limited to fans who hadn’t yet made the leap. Due to licensing restrictions, 8tracks also imposed new constraints on the audio content of mixes: limiting them to a certain number of songs per artist and per album, and automatically shuffling them upon repeat listening.

These restrictions may have had little impact on other types of playlists on the site, but while a workout mix might not change significantly from being played out of order, a fanmix about the evolution of Mulder and Scully’s relationship certainly did. Though fanmixes were easier to create, share, and access on 8tracks, by and large they were also simpler, less ambitious things.

Online, however, change is never long in the coming. In 2016, eight years after establishing itself as the ideal home for the fanmix, 8tracks’s founder, David Porter, announced a series of changes to streaming that had fans scrambling to leave as quickly as they’d flooded in. Ever since its earliest beginnings, 8tracks has struggled to cater to international audiences. An American company, 8tracks pays royalties to stream music in the U.S. and Canada, but has no equivalent arrangement internationally. As a result, in February 2016, 8tracks announced it would no longer provide native streaming to international listeners, but offer YouTube playback in its stead.

For fans outside of the U.S. and Canada, this solution quickly revealed itself to be untenable. YouTube playback, obviously, is premised on a given song already being uploaded to YouTube — and for non-North American users, this shift means that songs not available on YouTube can no longer be played on 8tracks at all, rendering countless fanmixes incomplete or entirely unlistenable.

YouTube Logo

Even songs that are on YouTube often appear in strange, unintended remix or cover versions; more often, 8tracks will supply a completely unrelated but similarly titled video instead. (I recently got a documentary about two friends crossing the Sahara in lieu of a song by the little-known band Travel by Sea.) To make matters worse, in December the same year, 8tracks dealt a blow to local fans as well, announcing a new limit of one hour a week on free streaming for U.S. users. For a casual listener, these new limitations may have been tolerable, but for fans looking for a carefully curated auditory experience, they sounded the death knell for 8tracks as a viable platform.

By the end of 2016, most fans had picked up their practices and devotion and gone elsewhere, as they have a long history of doing. That elsewhere, for the vast majority, was a music streaming service called Spotify.

For fans, Spotify was a logical transition. It offers many of the same features as 8tracks, most notably native streaming, custom cover art, and the ability to create and share playlists — all with considerably fewer restrictions on listening and curation. Unlike 8tracks, however, Spotify is neither an internet radio nor a social network. As such, it isn’t built for the kind of active, social listening that fanmixes invite and reward, instead focussing on audio streaming in its purest form: seamless, simple, and unobtrusive.

There’s little room in such a paradigm for fandom’s usual trappings, and unsurprisingly, Spotify provides next to no support for annotations or interaction. On 8tracks, fans could like and comment on each other’s mixes, and create collections of their favorites to share on their profiles. On Spotify, options for interaction are comparatively sparse: “Play,” “Follow,” “Playlist Radio,” and the ubiquitous “Share” and “Report.” As a design choice, the implication is hard to miss: on Spotify, playlists are for listening to, rather than discussing.

Under these circumstances, you might be forgiven for thinking that fanmixes, in 2017, are on the brink of extinction. In fact, the opposite is true; since their displacement from 8tracks, fanmixes have become more visible and popular than ever. Just as “Fifty Shades of Grey” brought fanfiction into the modern vernacular, so too has Spotify helped to bring fanmixes out of the niches of the Internet and into the realm of mainstream audiences. This is no doubt thanks in part to Spotify’s ease and ubiquity, but some of the credit may also lie with the platform’s enthusiastic adoption by media franchise owners and creators.

Previously the exclusive purview of fandom, recent years have seen a spate of “official” playlists published on Spotify. Unlike regular fanmixes, these playlists are created not by fans, but by media producers, such as in the case of Disney’s character-themed Star Wars playlists.

Though fans may debate whether such efforts truly constitute fanworks, such a distinction is harder to maintain on Spotify than elsewhere, where fan- and creator-made mixes are published side-by-side and often virtually indistinguishable. What’s more, there’s every possibility that official playlists are just the tip of the iceberg.

As music recommendation engines become more sophisticated, and streaming technology smarter and more seamless, it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which fanmixes have moved entirely from the grasp of fan creators and into the hands of algorithms. If Spotify can already generate song recommendations based on musical genres and listening history now, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the streaming service eventually creating entire playlists of its own, only based on keywords like Tony Stark and Wonder Woman instead of 90s pop and chill-out jazz.

Ultimately, Spotify’s impact on fanmixes largely depends on its longevity within fandom. Though Spotify may well continue its dominion into the future, YouTube continues to be a steadily popular alternative for audio-visual playlists, while 8tracks-like service Playmoss has recently been gaining traction on Tumblr, and 8tracks itself has plans to recapture its international audience.

Wherever fanmixes end up next, it seems likely that online platforms will play as formative a role in shaping them in the future as in the past, but this should not be mistaken for co-dependence. If history serves, the demise of the fanmix on one platform simply entails its rebirth, however changed, on another. The fanmix is dead—long live the fanmix.

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