8-Track Tape History: The Portable Music Format's Rise And Sudden Fall
8-track tapes. Source: eBay
Today the 8-track tape is the ultimate in obsolete technology, but it was once a revolution in music. Music in your car, and not just any music -- you had the radio for that -- but music you chose to bring. The music you wanted to listen to, at your fingertips or (to use a term that didn't exist back then) "on demand." 8-tracks were mechanically flawed in comparison to the formats that would follow -- cassettes and CDs -- and they couldn't always present the album as it existed on vinyl. But from the late '60s through the mid-'70s, a glove box full of 8-tracks by the Stones, Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell was a must for a smooth road trip.
The world has been evolving rapidly ever since the beginning of time when cavemen sought new methods to perform their tasks more effectively. But since the 20th Century, the advancement of technology has reached unimaginable levels of speed. This progression can be seen today with, for example, how quickly an iPhone becomes outdated when a newer version is released. This same scenario is also prevalent in the music industry. Compared to how long Earth has existed, recorded music is a relatively new feat, and in just the past couple centuries music players have drastically advanced from phonographs to tiny computers. Eight track players are a part of this history and although they are labeled today as a failed device, they dominated listening devices for a short period of time.
Eight-Tracks Were Installed In Ford Vehicles
8-tracks were invented through a collaboration of Ampex Magnetic Company, RCA Records, Ford Motor Company, and Learjet Company. Engineer William Lear (of Learjet Company) worked with Ford to make this system car-friendly. By 1965, customers had the option for an eight-track player to be included in their 1966 Ford model. Most drivers accepted the device and during just that first year, around 65,000 8-track players were installed in Ford vehicles. Because of its simplicity and small size, the 8-track was the first extensively available tape system that was used around the entire country. Prior to the 8-track, existing tape formats were not very impressive with the 4-track system and PlayTape that were developed during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Even more remarkable was that eight-track players for the home were also created during the late ‘60s.
Drivers Could Now Choose What Songs They Wanted To Hear
The 8-track system ignited a quick revolution in the music industry. The fact that an average person could listen to a song of their choice in the car was astonishing. During the earlier ‘60s, drivers were limited to what they could listen to during their commutes since FM stereos in cars was a rarity and the sound from AM Radio was quite poor. 8-tracks produced incredibly high quality sound and the biggest hits of popular rock ‘n’ roll bands were released in this format. The small size and portable nature was appealing to customers as well. Troops in Vietnam even listened to 8-tracks while trekking through the wild. As home players were being released, 8-tracks were competing against vinyl sales in the US, UK, and Canada since many preferred the tapes over their large records. 8-tracks were on their way to becoming legendary devices, but just as quickly as their popularity grew, they died out at the same rate.
Eight-Tracks Broke Easily And Caused Many Other Issues
8-tracks were extremely prevalent for just a few years from 1968 until 1975, until a new and improved system replaced them. There were many underlying issues with 8-tracks that were discovered as time went by. Their sound started out remarkable, but in time the sound quality declined and songs would bleed over into the next. 8-tracks were composed of a sturdy exterior, but their inner technology was very faulty as they broke easily and the tape often became tangled. The never-ending looping technology bothered many listeners as the eight-tracks could not rewind, and usually the complete material of an album would not fit on the tape. Eventually the audio cassette was released in the mid-‘70s, and drew customers in from all over with its smaller size and simpler use. Soon, all buyers were in favor of cassettes (even over vinyl) and by the ‘80s eight-tracks became obsolete.
Cassettes Replaced Eight-Tracks, But Would Soon Be Replaced By CDs
Although 8-tracks were basically extinct for a couple of decades, today many collectors are buying vintage tapes as a form of nostalgia. Better sound quality can be heard on cassettes, CD’s, and streaming services, but 8-tracks transport listeners back to a specific time of the past. Of course, the popularity of cassettes did not last long either as they were replaced by CDs, which were soon replaced by iTunes, which was then replaced by digital streaming. Although the idea of unlimited access to free music sounds ideal, some value is lost without the physical, tactile component of music. Younger generations are even realizing this same perception as vinyl sales have been on the rise the past few years. It seems there may always be use for tangible forms of music, even the unreliable eight-track.
Tags: 8-Track Tapes | Music In The 1960s | Stereo | Technology
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