By Dan Moore
The music industry is unforgiving, as anyone who still owns an eight-track player and is brave enough to admit it knows. It’s a business that has always been a slave to technological advancement. Progress saw vinyl replaced with cassette tapes, which in turn were replaced by CDs. The dawn of the digital age initially appeared to offer a rosy future for tin-pan alley, until the Internet boomed, broadband became cheap and the online pirates hoved into view, ripping the heart out of the business.
So where does this leave the record labels? Who knows, but it probably won’t result in an eight-track renaissance — that much is for certain. In some respects this is a shame, as it was a format that could have ruled the airwaves were it not for progress.
The eight-track player was introduced back in the early 1960s primarily as a dashboard-based music system for the booming car market. Developed by Ampex Magnetic Company, RCA Records and Lear Jet Company, the media got a real boost in 1965 when William Lear coerced Ford Motors into agreeing to offer an eight-track player as an option on all models released in 1966. Lear’s close links with electronics company Motorola — which was Ford’s preferred supplier — doubtless helped.
Ford’s backing for eight-tracks proved irresistible, effectively blowing away what opposition there was from other tape formats, such as PlayTape and four-track. Such was the interest in eight-track systems that models designed for the home soon began to appear.
Being able to play a cartridge in the car or at home was at the core of its mass appeal, and by the late 1960s sales of eight-tracks were rivaling that of vinyl. Ron Schauer, who worked as a technician at the Ampex facility in Elk Grove Village, Ill., recalled why eight-tracks became so popular: “First of all they sounded simply great compared to any other alternative commonly available at that time.”
Back in the 1960s FM stereo radio was not widely available, and, explained Schauer, “Your choices for in-car entertainment were therefore mushy bandwidth-limited AM radio, records — yes, there had been in-car record players available since the 1930s — and cassettes that sounded awful prior to the application of Dolby noise reduction and the introduction of high-bias tape coating. Then there was the occasional enthusiast who wired an open reel deck into the trunk.”
So, what made eight-tracks popular? According to Schauer it was their “convenience and relatively rugged construction.”
The fact that they offered music lovers the opportunity to listen to the latest hit by The Beatles or The Beach Boys in stereo while cruising in their car cannot be underestimated. People wanted to hear the quality, and considering FM stereo radio was a rarity, the eight-track sound was literally music to their ears.
The portability of eight-track also made it a firm favorite with the troops in Vietnam. Trudging through the jungle with a phonograph was not practical. However, a lightweight eight-track player, with its hardy cartridges and a battery pack, was a viable option. The presence of music from home helped make the eight-track more than just a consumer product; it was in danger of evolving into a product of iconic status. Just one thing stood in its way, though. To become an icon, it had to die out.
If the rise of eight-track was meteoric, its subsequent fall was just as acute. Just as the signs were all pointing to eight-track toppling vinyl as the format of choice for music lovers in the United States, Canada and to a lesser extent, in Great Britain, along came the audio cassette.
Smaller than an eight-track cartridge and offering a device that eased home recording, the diminutive tape soon captured the attention of the consumer, obliterating the market for eight-tracks and severely denting vinyl sales.
By the mid-1970s the major manufacturers of eight-tracks had pulled out of the market, and by the late 1980s the record labels had ceased issuing new releases in this format. Yet the eight-track did not completely die out.
Considering the many peculiarities and problems inherent with the eight-track’s endless loop technology, which meant that not all of an album’s songs could be accommodated (and those that were could be cut in half as the quarter-inch tape changed program) some might say it’s amazing the eight-track acquired a loyal fan base. However, it has, and interest in eight-tracks looks certain to continue.
Anyone who wants to relive his or her youth and invest in an eight-track player can pick one up for as little as $10. Well-known brands, such as Wollensak and Akai, sell in the region of $60-70, while four-channel quadraphonic eight-track systems can cost a cool $300.
Once the player has been purchased, the important business of collecting the cartridges can begin. As with so many collectibles, the cost of an individual tape depends on how sought-after it is. However, the majority of eight-track cartridges can be purchased for anything from less than a buck up to $10 and are available from record stores, Goodwill outlets and online.
Of course, there are certain cartridges eagle-eyed collectors are always on the lookout for. Perhaps the most desired eight-track is the second Frank Sinatra And Antonio Carlos Jobim collaboration, Sinatra Jobim. This album was only ever produced in eight-track format, and then only 3,500 were made before the project was scrapped. According to e-zine 8trackhea ven, this rarity has an estimated value of $5,000, making it the exception to the rule!
Other eight-tracks on the most-wanted list include the 1966 issue of The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night — one of these sold for $157 in 2003 — Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which can trade for $60 and up, and Pink Floyd’s Animals, which contains the only unabridged version of “Pigs On The Wing.” The release also contains a guitar solo by British progger Snowy White that’s not included on the LP. Another good example of quad eight-tracks going for a bomb: a Pink Floyd U.K. Dark Side Of The Moon release (apparently it’s one of the all time rarest eight-tracks) recently went for $676 in an online auction.
Malcolm Riviera, eight-track aficionado and writer, also points out that the appeal of this format even embraces phoney albums: “One of the most interesting tapes that gets big bucks is a fake: The Beatles’ Butcher Cover on eight-track! It was never released on eight-track, but counterfeits go for $50-75 on eBay to unsuspecting collectors.”
For most eight-trackers, though, the continuing fascination with the tapes has little to do with any hunt for musical gems, as Ron Schauer explained: “I suppose it is mostly nostalgia. After all, virtually any CD player will have vastly superior sound quality. Even cassettes are better-sounding now, but they just don’t have the gut appeal of a fist-sized tape cartridge that you can shove into a player.”
If the attraction of eight-tracks is clear to see and their following understandable, the question remains: Could it ever rise again as a major market force?
For Russell Forster — director of the cult film on the subject, So Wrong They’re Right, the fate of the format was unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. “I feel many new technologies are often steps sideways, not forward, and I’d rather rescue and recycle old technologies that can serve my needs.”
Forster added that the current difficulties being faced by the music industry — widespread piracy and falling sales — are the inevitable byproducts of progress and serve as a warning for anyone who thinks their sleek dashboard-based CD player is vastly superior to the bulky old eight-track system. “Eight-tracks had a market presence for 20 years, about the same as cassettes and probably about the same that CDs will manage.”
So, what if the music industry does find itself on the brink of a revolution that will see traditional formats, including cassettes and CDs, wiped out in favor of MP3 players and online jukebox sites? Surely it’s not inconceivable that enthusiasts of CDs and cassettes follow the lead of those exponents of the eight-track and hope that their preferred music players have the staying power. Whether they have the digital equivalent of a Sinatra Jobim album among their collection is another matter altogether.