Breaking convention from mixtapes to The OA

Posted on by Guy Cookson

The funny thing about a convention is that it often takes something to break it before we even notice it is there.

The OA, a recent TV series produced by Netflix, is a case in point.

Rather than follow a standard length for each installment, the eight episodes of The OA vary in running time from 30 to 70 minutes.

This would have been unthinkable when programmes were made to fit into rigid broadcast schedules used by TV networks around the world.

But The OA is available to stream directly by viewers, at the time and place of their choosing, so there is no specific allotment of time to fill.

The OA has discarded other conventions too. The creators of the series know viewers often binge-watch several episodes in one go on Netflix. And so there is no need to provide a recap of what has previously taken place at the start of each episode.

The makers of the show can just focus on telling the story.

We have been here before.

Vinyl LPs, which dominated the music industry in the 60s and 70s, played for around 45 minutes in total, and so albums typically came with 12 songs lasting three and half minutes each on average.

I grew up in the cassette era, and made hundreds of 90 minute TDK mixtapes using a twin cassette deck – with high-speed dubbing and Dolby B no less!

I remember trying to time the songs so not a second was wasted before the tape ran out on either side (because fast-forwarding was boring after all).

Meanwhile the CD imposed a new 74 minute time limit, which encouraged artists to reissue their back catalogues and add bonus tracks. In the early 1990s, this led me to spend a fortune on Japanese imports of my favourite band’s albums, plucked from Ear Ere Records on Penny Street in Lancaster.

Playlists on iTunes and later Spotify changed all that. These days I create “mixtapes” of what ever length feels right, and I tend to listen to them on shuffle rather than worrying about sequencing them in any particular order.

There is an argument for how constraints encourage creativity. But I prefer the freedom of breaking the old conventions. And the makers of The OA clearly agree.

This article originally appeared in the Lancaster Guardian where I write a weekly column.

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