If you’ve ever listed to hip-hop, you’ve probably been confused at least once about the term mixtape and album – and I completely understand why.
One artist may release an album while another artist releases a mixtape and, if you listen to them both, you’ll probably find it hard to tell the difference (from a music quality perspective).
The answer is that mixtapes in today’s music industry are basically a compilation of songs released for free, whereas an album is *typically* of higher quality, more structured, and released for profit (usually on streaming services these days).
For most purposes, that’s a good explanation.
However, depending on the artist’s situation with their record label (if they have one), the difference between a mixtape and an album (from a creative standpoint) can be as small as an album counting towards the required number of albums in their contract – while a mixtape doesn’t.
Ultimately the difference in quality and the release format will depend on the individual artist, their career, and their goals.
Table of Contents
What is a Mixtape?
Way back in the day, mixtapes were cassette tapes with music mixed together.
Back in the day, mixtapes were released as a way to showcase your skills. When hip-hop started transitioning onto the internet, artists would release mixtapes as a way to showcase their skills, grow their fanbase, and do shows.
Since mixtapes were going to be released for free, they were usually made as inexpensively as possible.
With very little money being invested in the mixtape, sometimes rappers would typically use instrumentals of other artists and just rap (Lil Wayne’s early mixtapes are a great example of this). During this “era”, most rappers weren’t concerned with making hit records on mixtapes. They wanted music that pleased “the streets” and grew their fanbase.
Nowadays, mixtapes are best described as a compilation of music that’s released for free. These mixtapes are typically as high-quality as albums (as far as the listener is concerned) and most songs on the mixtape come with original production.
What is an Album?
Nowadays, albums are usually a higher quality and more structured, for-profit mixtape (usually released on streaming services these days).
While I was growing up, albums (CD versions) were always what was professionally released in music stores. I mean, you could definitely find mixtapes in music stores as well but they were usually bootleg versions created by individuals looking to profit from the sale of those CDs.
When albums were released, you knew. The radio stations would interview and play the artist’s music frequently, you’d see the artist on TV, and the streets would talk.
The release of an album would open many doors of opportunity for the artist because of the money being spent by their record label on marketing and distribution. Since the internet wasn’t a popular place for music – a professional album release combined with the marketing money spent from their label was like the offline version of “going viral”.
Not to mention it allowed music artists to start selling album-related merchandise and perform regional, national, and international tours. Releasing a good album meant everything.
The downside, however, is that it was expensive, time-consuming, and required more manpower to successfully create and distribute an album. But, all of that changed thanks to the introduction of the internet.
Nowadays, creating an album can be as budget-friendly or expensive as you want it to be. For example:
- You can buy a stock image (or hire a freelancer) for your album cover
- Purchase beat leases from producers on BeatStars or YouTube
- Buy recording equipment and build your own home recording studio
- Record your music
- Find an audio engineer online and send him your tracked-out files for mixing + mastering
- Upload your music to streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon, and more
- Engage with potential fans and build your fanbase
- Continue marketing or repeat the process
That entire process can be completed for less than $1,500 – including purchasing equipment to build your home studio. Then, the next time you record and release an album – you can complete the process cheaper.
Keep in mind that cheaper doesn’t mean easier. In my experience, it tends to be the opposite. The cheaper you try to do something (for example, releasing an album) the harder you’re going to have to work to complete it successfully.
Should I Create a Mixtape or Album?
Nowadays, if you’re debating between creating a mixtape or creating an album as an upcoming music artist – I don’t recommend creating a mixtape or an album. Instead, I recommend creating a “project”.
A “project” is basically a “gray” area between a mixtape and an album. It’s basically an album disguised as a for-profit mixtape.
So, why create a “project”?
Currently, most music is consumed via major streaming platforms. However, in order to properly release music on streaming platforms – it needs to be all original content (or all samples cleared) due to the artist getting paid for every stream of their music. So, technically releasing albums is the best way to go about getting your music heard.
However, by not giving your release the classification of an “album” – you save that “buzzword” and the perception that comes with it for a later period in time. It’s primarily a marketing technique and, in an industry that’s controlled by marketing + perception, it may come in handy at some point in the future.
- A mixtape is basically a compilation of music that’s released for free
- An album is usually a higher quality and more structured, for-profit mixtape (usually released on streaming services these days).
Due to the decline of retail CDs, the rise of the internet, and the ability to stream music for one monthly fee straight from your phone – the lines separating a mixtape and an album are becoming more blurred every day.
The more people using streaming platforms, the more likely we are to transition away from calling releases mixtapes or albums. Instead, I’d take a guess and say more artists are going to use the term “project” unless they’re putting a lot of work and money behind it.
Frequently Asked Questions:
How long should a mixtape be?
A mixtape should be as long as you want it to be. I would recommend only putting your best music, at the time, on a mixtape. Once you release a mixtape, album, or “project” to the world – it will follow you forever.