Ridiculed today as the essence of obsolescence, the clunky, primitive 8-track tape brought about a social change of the same magnitude as the epochal Supreme Court decisions and the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
The 8-track tape, introduced in 1965, consisted of an endless loop of standard ¼-inch magnetic tape, housed in a plastic cartridge. On the tape were eight parallel soundtracks, corresponding to four stereo programs. Although it was developed by Learjet for aviation playback, the technology became an instant success when auto makers began installing tape decks in cars. Prior to the 8-track tape, music playback at home was limited to vinyl records, expensive reel-to-reel decks and the radio,and, in the car, to AM radio only. The easy-to-use, self-activating decks and small, lightweight cartridges for the first time allowed the driver, and not the radio station, to choose the music, thus insuring the format’s success. The popularity of the system encouraged the rapid development of 8-track tape components for home stereos, capable of recording and playback, making it possible for listeners to access their music on a single, portable format, at home and in the car. With its ease of use and flexibility, the 8-track tape quickly overtook the sale of large, heavy, fragile,vinyl records, to become the largest segment of the retail music market in the early 1970s.
To be sure, 8-track tapes had their drawbacks. While the self-playing, endless-loop required no attention while driving, it could not be fast-forwarded, rewound or cued, only played through. To hear a certain song, one had to listen the entire track. Fitting the 10-12 songs of an album into the tape’s four 10-minutes segments meant that the track order of vinyl recordings was not respected (a huge problem for albums without breaks between tracks like Dark Side of the Moon or clear narratives like Tommy). The most egregious offense was the sometimes-unavoidable splitting of longer songs between two tracks, which entailed a fade-out mid-song, a long silence followed by the tape head (loudly) shifting to the next track and then a fade-in to the rest of the song. Serious audiophiles and fans stuck with vinyl.
Inferior in sound quality but capable of rewinding and allowing for a kind of random access, cassette tapes replaced 8-tracks in the early 1980s. While the tapes are now emblems of the past-ness of the 1970s, the 8-track inaugurated the era of portability, multi-platform capability, and, most importantly, personal choice in music–the basic functionalities we expect all devices to provide. Modern consciousness radically differs from that of even 50 years ago because we now have life-long, always available, highly-personalized soundtracks running constantly and shaping our days. We may have different equipment but we still inhabit the 8-track conceptual framework.