You hear the repeated chorus: music in the digital age has become meaningless and valueless, like turning on water from a tap in the middle of Rome. But, quietly, a movement is stirring that is reclaiming the value of music. Armed with nothing more sophisticated than markers, paper, collage materials, and imagination, they send mixes of music like grade school Valentines. Heck, they even use the mail. It makes the album more personal than it was even in its golden, mass-produced age.

Many of the practitioners in this case are returning to the cassette and mix tape. But I was also interested in handcrafting cases for demos, for your own music, and for mixes of Creative Commons-licensed and netlabel materials. Instead of just swapping behind our avatars and usernames on SoundCloud, it returns us to the glee of playing with markers and exchanging face-to-face.

If you’re in New York, we’ll be making our own musical packaging and then swapping records, starting with a 4:00 pm workshop on this Sunday 10/10/10 at the Lower East Side’s cozy (and tapas- and drink-stocked) Culturefix NY:

RSVP + location + Facebook; stay for the party, live music, and swap at 7p

But wherever you are, perhaps this Sunday you can make some handmade music.

Here’s a look at some of the work being done, via a Flickr group entitled “Handmade Mixes,” in a Flickr slideshow:

Group founder Samantha Saturday talks to CDM about her techniques, and gives us some crafting tips. Keeping it simple makes this manageable, too, in case you’re planning a handmade, limited edition-run of your next EP.

Tips for materials:

For collaging works I always keep a shoebox of paper scraps and snippets from newspapers, magazines, flyers, basically anything that can be glued or taped down. Keeping all your supplies close at hand is a huge help. Personally I make all my cases completely from scratch, but sometimes starting out with a pre-made CD sleeve and building on top of it is a great way to start.

My best advice is to keep the process fun and to not put too much pressure on yourself to make something totally awesome. If you just let it happen it will be awesome no matter what. There is no right or wrong way to do it.

What to bring to a workshop: (including ours on Sunday!)

Bring mixes specifically for the event and some paper, magazines, glue, snippets, or what have you to share with the workshop.

I talked to Sam about some other ideas, too…

Tell us what you’ve been making.

All of the works I have made are either for friends or for mix trades organized in different places around the internet, such as blogs and Swap-bot [an online-organized swap meet]. For every mix I make, I also create a collaged, cut & paste cover. Some are simpler than others, but I always try to make something nice to house all this great music.

In general I put so much effort and time into making individual covers for every mix because I feel that with the digital age music is starting to lose some of it’s specialness. There’s something about having album artwork to accompany the music you’re listening to. Now you don’t really get that with digital downloads and I miss that. I think it’s the same for a lot of the people who are so dedicated to creating unique artwork.

Who are some of the other people you’ve found working in this medium?

Jane Boston (Stab Heart zine) and Bianca Jagoe (Goodnight Little Spoon) are the first that come to mind. They are both pretty big swappers in the online and mail art community. I’ve sent to and received mixes from both of them and I adore the love they put forth in their creations.

Additionally some of the people that have really stood out to me are Richard Gallon [Flickr] and Evey in Orbit [Flickr. Richard creates really well-crafted covers for his cassettes. On the other hand Evey has a much more cut-and paste approach to it. Even though their techniques are very different I love the range that can be expressed because it’s such an open medium.

I created the Flickr group Handmade Mixes for people to share their handmade covers, since it seems like every other mix group is mostly computer-generated works. Most of the people who contribute are people I invited, but a few other people are popping up here and there, which is so exciting! Everyone in the group does a great job and it’s really inspirational to see that there are lots of people out there who make their own covers, too.

Introduce us to one of your favorite mixes.

My mix “We’re the Heirs to the Glimmering World” is definitely one of my favorite mixes that I’ve made, both because of the music and the cover art. Usually if I’m feeling a little down I will make a mix to focus my mind on something else and that was definitely the case with this mix. It’s one of the most elaborate covers I’ve made.

You mention on one of the Flickr images that some of these mixes came from getting together for an in-person swap.

[That’s] Mix Share Swap hosted by Bianca Jagoe of Goodnight Little Spoon. I found out about the swap from Jane Boston’s blog. If you keep your eye out, there are a lot of mix swaps like this around the blogosphere. Anyone could sign up, then you were assigned two random people you would send to from the list and you received mixes from two different people. It’s a great way to share music and connect with other people.

Any thoughts on how you translate the personality of a music mix to the visuals on the handmade packaging? (It’s an age-old question, of how to make something visual out of the auditory and ephemeral.)

When I make a mix the music, of course, always comes to mind first. After, and sometimes during, compiling a mix you listen to it and different themes or a general feel to the music will come forward and I think that’s where ideas for the packaging first start to form.

Everyone has their own aesthetic and although it sounds cliché it’s definitely about putting together what feels right. Sometimes the cover doesn’t necessarily tie in directly with the music, but generally I think there is something in the sub-conscience that drives the creation. Also, the handmaking process is a lot different than say, someone creates a cover on a computer. You’re connecting with the mix on a tactile level and that alone comes through in the visuals.

More inspiration:

Check out Sam’s Flickr: Handmade album
and the Handmade Mixes group on Flickr (which I hope will also apply to original music, CC-licensed music)

All images courtesy Samantha Saturday.

Below, some of Sam’s favorites from her group.


David Singleton does wonderful work with cassettes. Come on, you’ve got a Walkman handy to play them. Admit it. Photo (CC-BY-NC) David Singleton.

Mixed CD Swap x2

Courtesy thehouseofhearts, who describes it thusly: This is for the Mixed CD Swap Bianca from put on. Blogged about it here.” Used by permission.


Used by permission of Iowan Kim Throneberry.
  • DJ Hombre

    some major artists are moving this way too, Dj Shadow's recent handmade promo 12"s have been furtively tucked away in various independent record shops around Europe. The covers are all unique and feature personally hand-drawn pictures by Josh himself….all of which provide a much nicer and more personal touch than the faceless and immediate distribution of mp3s.

  • My favourite way I've used for cds is heavy card paper folded in half, using a sewing machine to close two sides and then having custom rubber stamps made to print on the card paper. Some spray paint on the back of the cd is nice too.

  • prevolt

    I used to do tape booklets hand-drawn & collaged at 300% size (because most copiers you find have a 33% shrink button). Not entirely handmade, but it let you do small runs of things.

    I used to love the mix trading site, though they've kinda started falling apart (you used to be able to post photos of the custom packages, but that's somehow broken, etc).

    One little thing in defense of digital album art–it IS fun to make GIFs as album covers, tho I agree on everything else. Music has to stay personalized.

  • Generative digital artwork, so each is unique, is one possibility.

    Or I like the idea of generating something like dots, then completing the digital illustration by hand…

    Lots of possibilities for being digital but personal.

  • What a great post! I am so flattered to be featured here as this was my first mixed CD swap and it was so much fun to put together.
    It's to bad that I am coming to New York the weekend after this swap. I hope you have an amazing turn out and I might just have to start the trend up here in Montreal.

  • Kim

    I have used duck-tape for labels for my Duck-tape Recordings the family loves em.

    On the down side if you want to stay up late doing this kind of thing Starbucks just raised their prices. 🙁

  • I've made this one a while ago for my Denoising Noise Music project:
    Just scroll down a bit.

    It's transparent paper sewn together, only 30 copies were made!

  • SrBlandito

    Great, but it makes even more obvious that nowadays people don't consider music valuable enough to sell by itself. Sad. Package may be beautiful but it's music that counts, or should. It's like buying a book only if the cover is beautiful enough, regardless of the text inside.

    Makes me really sad, indeed.

  • mike_d

    "Package may be beautiful but it’s music that counts, or should."

    Yes agree with this. Also artists that describe their process with statements like "I only use analog gear" in an attempt to make it some how more authentic for want of a better word.

    All that should matter is what goes in your ears. Everything else is irrelevant and sometimes just comes across as compensating for a lack of creativity in the music. The slowed down Justin Bieber track shows what happens if you really do have an original musical idea.

  • Well, no, I don't think that's necessarily the point. 😉

    We'll see what music people choose on Sunday. But the swaps above don't involve any exchange of $$; they're just bartering. I think when you put your own hand into something, you make something that's in some sense priceless and personal. It's the difference between a print and an original, between someone sending you a text message and someone hand writing a letter. It's about the transaction itself.

  • dyscode

    I have done individual covers the to the extreme from cassette to CDs between 1987 and 2000. Man this was hell of work.

    It´s nice to the `younger`generation discovers this again but…

    for me – I am through with that!

    Today I only care for the music… and a artwork PDF maybe. And the less physical things are involved the better. I am sick of storing that stuff away.

  • prevolt

    I kind of hear you there, dyscode. I don't actually miss late nights in Kinkos and trashing my place doing a run of 20 discs all that much, I just miss the finished product.

    The idea of generative artwork has so many possibilities…prepared papers that degrade their printouts uniquely, random selections of vellum layers that can move & change against one another, laser cutter stuff, embedded electronics, it goes on and on.

  • Well, and that's another reason to do this — not because I'm suggesting you need to use markers and glue for all future album releases, but because often I find the best way to prototype what you'd do digitally is indeed with markers and glue.

  • prevolt

    or edible package elements in multiple flavors…

  • BARF

    Nice packaging doesn't make the music any better. But, if you enjoy the physical artifact, it can make a great album that much more precious.

  • moni

    We hand sprayed album covers for Ruoho Ruotsi's
    Hmmm …
    album (De'fchild Productions release 003)
    Different colors were used to make each one a little bit different. Hard work, but rewarding. These came out nicely!

    Check out the flickr set here:

    Official release page here:

  • After releasing a series of commercially-manufactured mixtapes in the late 90s, I created a series of mixtapes entitled "One Of A Kind" which were previously unreleased mixes—mostly practice sessions and recordings of live shows. Each one was unique; I only made ONE of each one, and gave each one out to a friend, most of whom I'm not in touch with any longer.

    Since I already had the recordings, the only extra labor was creating the art. Since each one was made for a specific person, the art was highly personalized.

    Today, I have found six of the fourteen tapes ripped and posted on the Internet. Oddly, this somehow validated the experience.

  • new miaoux miaoux album was released with hand-knitted cd sleeves….

  • tender vittles

    This local artist here in Atlanta has made some really interesting hand made objects. The one featured on h/is/er site is awesome. Made out of mud or something.

  • derrida

    Nice article,
    just check out this guy if you dont already know him
    he shows in a timelapse video how he makes his CDs
    wonderfull music too,

  • jodaci
  • Some very nice cover art in here.
    Cool to see an article about this, I myself have also 'released' my EP with DIY artwork, check it at <a href="http://” target=”_blank”>http:// <a href="” target=”_blank”> (grab the second link, bandcamp is the primary download source due to bandwith issues)