Gather round youngsters! As the old(er) staffer at Loudwire, when we recently saw National 8-Track Tape Day coming up on the calendar, it sparked some moments of nostalgia for myself and a few head scratches from others. So today (April 11), in honor of the long lost music platform, it seemed like a good time to reflect and analyze what made the 8-track so great, so frustrating and such a key part of music history.
What Is an 8-Track Tape Anyway?
The 8-track tape was a cartridge containing a recorded spool of tape that would be pulled from the center of the reel, passed across the opening at one end of the cartridge and wound back onto the outside of the same reel. The tape was driven by the tension in the capstan and pinch roller and would turn at a constant rate to play the music that was recorded onto the tape.
The Stereo 8 edition improved upon the initial 4-track StereoPak, typically allowing four programs of two tracks apiece. The Stereo 8 could switch between tracks automatically or by the user switching over, as seen below, but only a limited amount of time was available per each track.
The Stereo 8, or 8-track, eventually became the first primary music player used in automobiles in the ‘60s and it grew in popularity into the early and mid-‘70s.
How Did the 8-Track Tape Become Popular?
The first significant ways in which we transmitted music were via vinyl players and eventually sending out songs over the radio airwaves and this was the standard for a long time, but as the vehicle industry continued to boom in the early 20th century, the question of how to translate the music experience to cars became the big question.
According to ARS Technica, Peter Goldmark’s Highway Hi-Fi was one of the initial attempts, but as anyone who has walked with a heavy foot near a turntable can tell you, a vinyl record option in a car was subject to skipping. And we all know that cars do hit a few bumps in the road.
Fidelipac Cartridge then came to the table with what they referred to as “the cart.” It used an analogue magnetic tape format that was based on an endless loop system. It was initially sold to the radio market, allowing for recordings at “broadcast speed.” By 1962, Earl “Madman” Muntz and George “Fidelipac” Eash began working on what they called a Stereo-Pak system, a four-track cartridge that could play in cars.
Eventually William “Bill” Lear, a former used car salesman, saw a way in which he could improve upon the Stereo-Pak, eventually expanding it to a “Stereo 8” eight-track cartridge, which could provide up to 90 minutes of content. Ampex and RCA Victor showed interest, as did automotive giants such as Motorola, Ford and GM. Launching in 1965, the 8-track soon became a must have, with most every new model of Ford offering 8-track players by the following year. This new standard-bearer was a hit.
Why the 8-Track Tape Ruled
While the radio gave you plenty of stations you could punch through (yes, punch as some car radios had button presets) to find something to listen to, the 8-track tape gave you freedom. For once, you were in control. Vinyl certainly wasn’t an option in a car. And the radio dosed out ditties to you as tastemakers, but you didn’t really have much say on the what and the when of it all.
With an 8-track tape, you could finally play a full record on a car drive whenever you wanted. You were in charge of what you listened to, and it certainly sounded sweet with the windows down on a summer night.
And for those who grew up just a little later in life, much like Columbia House might have started you on your cassette or CD collections early, there were also offers to purchase a wealth of 8-track gems for a simple low price just to get you started. Can we interest you in some Aerosmith, Peter Frampton or Nazareth?
Why the 8-Track Tape Kind of Sucked
Kids today, you don’t know how good you’ve got it. Imagine if you will listening to your favorite song and it just fades out in the middle of the track. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a click, and the song fades back in and makes it to its completion. It was not uncommon for 8-tracks to separate on a time limit, and the work around was the fade-out, fade-in, which even back in the ‘70s would elicit a few groans or head shakes.
The other misery of the 8-track was that it didn’t hold up well to heat. So better watch out if you leave the tape in the player too long or your car heats up in the summer sun while the tape is stuck in its resting place in the player. You might get a little warping of the sound, easily signifying where you mistakenly left it last. It sounded something like putting the needle down on the vinyl mid-song and then starting up your power before the record got up to speed.
Not to mention, 8-tracks were a little bulky as well, something that wasn’t hugely convenient if you were behind the wheel. But it’s not like they didn’t try to make it easier to keep track of these cartridges.
Why Did the 8-Track Tape Go Out of Style?
Simply put, evolution. The 8-track was really the first technology where you could play music other than the radio in your car. But the aforementioned drawbacks led to the desire to create a better player. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, those solutions were finally realized and the 8-track was unable to compete in the eyes of the consumer.
Losing a battle on costs to cassettes, 8-track makers started to use cheaper materials, which in turn led to more issues with wear over time, upsetting some of the primary users.
What Replaced the 8-Track Tape?
As the ‘70s turned to the ‘80s, more options became available. Primarily the audio cassette took the place of the 8-track. It still used tape, but came in a more concise package and with fewer drawbacks. A cassette tape allowed for a longer playing time per side, allowing artists the ability to mirror the Side A and Side B of their vinyl offerings, often with plenty of time left over to end the side. No fade out and fade in’s necessary.
The cassette tape had been around and under consideration since the advent of the 8-track, but initially was seen as the inferior platform due to a slower speed and lesser sound quality. But over time, as the 8-track’s faults were realized and cassettes got a closer look. They were also smaller and cheaper to make.
Cassette tapes did have their drawbacks. Working with tape, it was not uncommon to get your tape twisted or mangled, but unlike the 8-track, you were actually able in most cases to access and repair the twisted tape with the simple act of twisting a pencil through the rollers to spool out and correct the error.
The ‘80s also brought about the CD, which was then defined as the standard for sound. Even more concise, the compact disc strayed from using tape altogether. No more warped sounding playbacks, the ability to skip around to individual songs thanks to the digital player and for the most part it was easier to store as well. With the advent of the CD and the evolution of the cassette tape, the 8-track was simply a technology that now seemed dated and by the mid-’80s was mostly being phased out.
Car manufacturers began installing cassette players and by the mid-to-late ‘80s also provided CD player options with vehicles. Meanwhile, the 8-track slot in the vehicle all but disappeared. With cassettes and CDs ruling the landscape and few manufacturers even making 8-track players anymore, the 8-track died out as a popular technology … except at radio, which still used “carts” well into the ‘90s for one of its original purposes, to record audio on for commercial spots and playback. It would take nearly another decade beyond the 8-track’s mid-‘80s downfall before digital computer editing became the prominent radio standard for commercial recording and playback.
How the 8-Track Tape Downfall Mirrors a Current Music Platform?
Sadly, with the advent of digital music and streaming, physical platforms have taken a hit. There is a fascination amongst today’s generation with the crackle and hiss of vinyl, with music being presented in the manner in which it was initially provided. But the CD, which was touted for its sound quality in the ‘80s, has taken a significant hit in recent years.
Like the 8-track, the physical nature of the CD is now being questioned. Vinyl always allowed for great artwork and liner notes whereas the CD provided a condensed version of that. And digital and streaming has done away with the bulkiness of a physical product altogether. So some of the primary draws of the CD has been eclipsed by vinyl, while those wishing to consume their music without a physical presence have found the CD obsolete.
Once a staple in vehicles, more and more automakers are ditching the CD player in favor of plug ins for digital players. That in turn has seen a downturn of CD players being offered in retail environments, and it feels like the death of the 8-track all over again.
Yes, music has evolved over the years, as has the way in which we consume it. But for many older music listeners, the 8-track represents our youth and that first taste of freedom to play what you want when you wanted it. It’s cruising in the T-top Trans-Am, hair flowing in the wind and thinking back to a simpler time.
There are still collectors of 8-tracks out there and you might be able to get your hands on an 8-track player as well. For those who have one, enjoy this trip back in time on National 8-Track Tape Day with some of the greatest rock music there was to offer. For those too young to remember the 8-track, take a look at your CDs and enjoy them now hoping they don’t eventually meet the same fate.