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The Guy Collecting Every Gap Store Playlist Ever Made

‘I’m still obsessed with ‘Cotton Wool (Fila Brazilia Mix)’ by Lamb from the August 1998 playlist. It really captures the feel of the Gap store that year’

The Gap In-Store Playlists blog is the passion project of Mike Bise, a 56-year-old elementary school computer teacher and former Gap employee. Bise, who worked at Gap for 15 years, started the blog in 2015 for the purpose of compiling every in-store playlist from 1992 to 2006. In the nearly seven years since, he hasn’t let up. And with help from all corners of the country, his musical quest is now nearly three-quarters of the way complete.

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I started working at the Highland Park Village Gap in Dallas in October 1992 as seasonal sales help just after I’d received my English degree from Texas A&M. From my first day, I was captivated by the music. “Love Breakdown” by Rozalla from the October 1992 Gap playlist was the song that jump-started my interest. I knew “Everybody’s Free” from the clubs, but this was the song that really got me.

When I started at Gap, the music was on four-hour cassette tapes made by AEI Music. In an eight-hour shift, you’d usually hear all of the songs twice. By March 1998, Gap had switched over to four-hour CDs. When each tape/CD arrived at the store every month, a paper playlist was inserted that listed all of the songs and artists on that month’s tape/CD. Most stores posted the playlists either at the cash wrap or in the backroom for employees who were interested in the songs as well as to be able to answer customers’ questions about the music.

New tapes usually arrived the last week of each month. The old tapes and CDs were required to be mailed back to AEI, but the paper lists remained. They either ended up in the backroom, or they were discarded, which is how I started collecting them.

I knew early on that I wanted to compile all the songs from these playlists so I could listen to them anywhere. But without a computer, I had to manually go buy CDs and record the songs on cassette tapes. Back then, I couldn’t afford to buy 50 CDs a month to amass all of the songs on each playlist, so I went slowly, buying my favorites immediately while adding in lesser faves here and there. Stealing the tapes wasn’t an option since the AEI cassettes only played on an AEI machine. 

But without all the songs, the playlists I was putting together just never sounded the same. The sequencing was off, and I couldn’t capture the full in-store Gap experience. Once I got a computer with a media player in 1995, though, I knew that I could eventually recreate everything digitally instead of making my own tapes, which I did for some playlists but not for all of them.

Some of my favorite songs over the years include “Saratoga” by Ultramarine from the September 1993 playlist — a flute, an Eagles sample and a grooving beat. From the March 1994 playlist, I loved “Cross Over the Bridge” by Patti Page. It reflected the then-current “Who Wore Khakis” ongoing promotion in Gap stores, featuring vintage photos of celebrities wearing khakis, like Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, Carole Lombard and Zsa Zsa Gabor. The playlists in the first half of 1994 were a wild mix of jazz and swing standards, mixed in with classic rock, R&B and alternative rock.

In 1998, I remember being completely obnoxious in the store, giggling along with Esthero in the chorus for “That Girl.” I’m still obsessed with “Cotton Wool (Fila Brazilia Mix)” by Lamb from the August 1998 playlist. It really captures the feel of the Gap store that year. In fact, the in-store August playlist from 1998 is hailed as the best by anyone who remembers it. 

All of which is to say that during my time at Gap, I learned how much more expansive the world of recorded music was compared to what was just on the radio stations in Dallas. I never would have heard a note of acid jazz had I not worked at Gap in the 1990s. I remember driving around Dallas in the mid-1990s looking for acid jazz collections, which were extremely difficult to find. Trip hop, too! Several Gap playlists in 1996 and 1997 veered into trip hop quite heavily.

In 2006, though, I was at a crossroads and decided to leave Gap to care for a family member. During that move, I lost the box that contained all of the paper playlists I’d saved from each month’s new tape from 1992 to 2006, including Gap, GapBody, GapKids and BabyGap playlists. It was pretty devastating. I had to put it out of my head for a while rather than freak out about it.

Thankfully, in spring 2010, while looking through a huge binder full of dozens of CDs of rare, unreleased Stevie Nicks music, I discovered a flap inside the back cover with 25 Gap playlists tucked inside. Apparently, I’d shoved them in there for some forgotten reason. It changed everything. The playlists were mostly from 2002 to 2005, with a few from 1999 and 2001, pretty evenly split between Gap and GapKids. Looking through them, I realized what I’d lost. The music at Gap had meant so much to me, and I was determined to get it back.

It took a while to come up with a plan — five years to be exact. Eventually, I decided to make a blog and post the playlists I’d found. I also posted versions of the monthly playlists recreated from my memory. I posted this bare-bones blog on New Year’s Eve 2015 and spent the next year posting links to it on various sites in hopes of finding others who’d also saved Gap playlists.

A year later, I received an email from another former Gap employee who had saved dozens of playlists from 1993 to 2000. It was amazing to see them. It was also interesting to see where my memory was right on (most of the time) and where it was wrong. Later that same year, two other guys sent me several more playlists I was missing from 2000 to 2003. In the years since, several others have done the same, bringing many years to almost completed status.

In fall 2020, a current Gap employee sent me a copy of the December 2000 Gap playlists, which she’d found behind a shelf in the back room of her store. It had been sitting there for almost 20 years! A few months later, another current employee sent me the February 2004 Gap playlist he’d discovered in his store’s backroom.

Mood Media now owns AEI Music and Muzak, which took over making the playlists and CDs in April 1999. Unfortunately, there are no longer any records saved there due to a server upgrade several years ago that wiped out all information about their former client. The reason I point this out is that the number one question I get is, “Why don’t you ask Gap?” I have, and Gap has nothing. Nor does the parent company of the music services that made the playlists. I’ve asked. There is nothing.

Gap has brought me back into the fold on several occasions during my search. In 2017, they hired me to make two playlists for their official Spotify account, along with a few other archival projects. In spring 2020, as the pandemic had everyone shut down, Gap started an Instagram/Spotify campaign based on my blog and the playlists, which was very exciting. Last summer, I spent a day at the Gap archive in San Francisco searching for playlists. There weren’t any, but it was still thrilling to be there in the middle of all that Gap history.

When I started this project, I merely wanted to get back what I’d lost. I’d estimate that I’m 75 percent done with my original goal of compiling every playlist from 1992 to 2006. My biggest needs are still 1992 through 1995, and 2003 through 2006. But at this point, even if I find every Gap, GapBody, GapKids and BabyGap playlist from 1992 to 2006, I’m still going to leave the site up and keep searching for other years to help make other people happy.