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The Eight-Track Miracle: 8 Reasons It Failed

By on 23 April 2014 | comments 9

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WHEN eight-track tapes hit the shelves in the latter part of the Sixties, it was seen as a godsend.  All of a sudden, you could listen to your music collection in your car, or out-and-about with the new boom-boxes.  There were even rumors it would completely replace the vinyl record.  Yet, just over a decade later, the humble cassette tape was able to drive it to extinction.  Its heyday lasted from 1968-1975, and by 1980 the poor eight-track was in history’s dustbin, a sort-of laughable derelict from the Seventies.

So what happened? Here are 8 reasons for its untimely demise.

1. TOTALLY UNRELIABLE

 

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The primary reason the eight-track became extinct was because it was an unreliable piece of shit.  They simply weren’t built to last and subsequently earned a reputation as being ticking time bombs.  Truth be told, brand new eight-tracks often sounded good, and the tapes themselves were virtually indestructible: they never melted in the sun or cracked.  It was the internal components that started to fall to pieces over time.  If the manufacturers hadn’t opted for cheap construction, things might have turned out differently.

 

 

2.  CAR STEREOS HATED THEM

 

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Anyone who had an eight-track player in their car knows the trauma of having the tape eaten.  Owing to its problematic construction, the eight-track became notorious for becoming a tangled wretched mess…. usually during the best part of your favorite song.

 

 

3. THE ANNOYING SONG FADE OUT

 

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It was quite common for a single song on an album to fade out and fade back in as it transitioned to a new track.  Eight-track tapes consisted of actually 4 tracks (each in stereo, totaling 8).  Unfortunately, this meant that they had to be equal in length, which didn’t necessarily jive with the original LP.  Suffice it to say, things had to be adjusted and some songs had to be split into two parts – thus the annoying song fade out and in.

 

 

4. COPYRIGHT PROBLEMS

 

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Eight-tracks were the first music medium to introduce the issue of copyright protection.  The fact that you could easily record on them brought floods of illegal copies to truck stops and flea markets across the US.  There’s a famous story of Jerry Lee Lewis taking a baseball bat to a shelf of bootleg eight-tracks he came across when he stopped for gas.  However, the issue never became widespread enough to affect the way the music industry did business; it wasn’t until the mp3 format took hold that the foundations began to shake

 

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Funny.  I don’t remember this Beatles album. An 8-track bootleg.

But did the growing abundance of homemade eight-tracks really have anything to do with its downfall? After all, the cassette tape was geared toward making unlicensed recordings.  Perhaps it wasn’t directly responsible, but the ability to easily make backyard bootlegs didn’t do the eight-track any favors in the reputation department.  The music industry would learn to live with a degree of illegal copies on the market, but the eight-track absorbed the initial scorn.

 

 

5. FILTHY AND TRASHY MUSIC COLLECTION OF SHAME

 

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Despite the fact that eight-tracks began as techno-marvels, developed by Bill Lear (of Lear Jets no less), they soon earned a reputation as being not only unreliable, but also tacky.  As I mentioned, the case was basically bulletproof, but the sticker was not.  Thus, everyone’s collection consisted of sturdy cartridges with worn, peeling and stained stickers.  There was no real outer decorative case as with CDs and cassettes, just the cartridge.  And so, unlike the source of pride which was your record collection, the filthy eight-track collection often became a thing of shame in the floorboard of your car.

 

 

6. YOU CAN’T REWIND

 

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It may seem trivial, but not being able to rewind become a real downside to the eight-track.  It was a breath of fresh air to be able to roll backwards with the cassette tape. This negative wasn’t quite outweighed by a strong positive quality of the eight-track: it was on an infinite loop. While the cassette and record would abruptly stop when it reached the end of a side, the eight-track would play for all eternity…. or at least a few hours before it busted.

 

 

7. THE DREADED BLEED-THROUGH

 

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I won’t go into the mechanics of the eight-track (there’s always Wikipedia for that).  I’ll just point out that, if the heads became misaligned even slightly (a VERY common occurrence) the one track would bleed-through into another track.  Worst case scenario: two songs at equal pitch playing at the same time.  Best case: a faint background of an altogether different track.  Either way, it was a thoroughly miserable listening experience.

 

 

8. CASSETTES ARE CHEAP

 

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Ultimately isn’t this what it all boils down to?  If the eight-track had been a pinch more reliable and worked out its kinks, perhaps the lower price wouldn’t have been such a death blow.  In other words, the cassette wasn’t exactly a revelation the way CDs and mp3s seemed to be at first; so, there was no reason to think a slightly lower price would matter so much.  But since the eight-track was under-delivering, all it took was a competing product being just a couple dollars cheaper.

 

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File under 8-tracks we’d love to have seen.  Perhaps an Atari-8-track combo would’ve given it just enough cool points to stay around a few years longer.

But let’s not be too hard on the eight-track.  For a few years, it was awesome and we loved it.  Like all technologies, it got supplanted by something else.  Indeed, the cassette’s reign of glory was short lived as well; barely making it out of the eighties before the CD beat it into submission.  Then the CD became overshadowed by iTunes and mp3s…. and so it goes.

As for myself – I’ve stuck with records and am quite happy.

  • mahatmacoatmabag

    Anorak, I never knew that there was an 8 track called ” Female Freaks in Acton ” mind you I knew a few in Hammersmith & Fullham , so I suppose its only natural that there were some in next door Acton too !

  • Steve Mills

    I didn’t mind the fade out/in. When I recorded my own 8-tracks, I just let it record straight over the track change. No big deal. The *clunk* was better than the fade.

    As for bleed-through, I actually kinda like that. When the last big long piano chords fades out at the end of “A Day in the Life”, I would hear “Lovely Rita” come through as the chord got quiet. It was my own custom version of that song, and I still expect to hear it that way when I hear it today. It sends me back to a great time in my life.

  • Tammy Lacroix

    trivia time – one of the last titles released on 8 track was “Never Mind The Bollocks” by sex pistols. its very rare and worth a few hundred dollars.

    • Brad Conrad

      It’s true that sometimes it grabs a few hundred dollars but it’s not true that its one of the last titles released – not even close.

  • D.a. Trappert

    Some 8-tracks got around the fade-in/fade-out problem by repeating a song. The biggest problem was that the tape would break or come apart where it was joined. Radio Shack sold an 8-track repair kit to splice it back together, which I did many times. I also recorded my own 8-tracks on blank tapes from Radio Shack. As Steve Mills mentions in his post, it was a lot easier just to record over the break if you didn’t want to go to the trouble of figuring out a set of songs for each track that wouldn’t leave a lot of blank space. My first 8-tracks were two from the Archies, their first album and Jingle Jangle. My father also had some Irish Rovers that we listed to a lot.

  • Brad Conrad

    All good points above.

    Some 8 tracks were manufactured extremely well with metal leaf springs instead of foam tape support (which disintegrated quickly) and cured rubber pinch rollers instead of melty rubber or hard plastic. Too bad there was no overarching quality control because, all things being equal, 8 track tapes have a higher fidelity than cassettes; 8 Tracks run at 3.75 inches per second which is more than twice the speed of a cassette and the tape track width is the same as cassette (1/16″ per stereo pair).

    Also if you record over the break/splice and play back the tape loud enough you don’t even notice the clunk.

  • Mapster68

    Actually your first point “it was an unreliable piece of shit.” pretty much summed up my experience. The parking lot at my high school was littered with the piled-up remains of eaten tapes – like corpses rotting in the sun (a very putrid image I might add).

  • Despiser_of_Libs

    Records. Hahaha. Id take an 8 track over a record anyday.. Mobile record players never quite caught on for some reason…

    I never knew anyone or saw any devices that recorded an 8 track tape.

    • CaptainNed

      Roomie my sophomore year in college (’82-’83) had a recording 8-track deck that I believe carried the J.C. Penney brand name. He recorded most of my vinyl onto blank 8-tracks he sourced from nowhere I ever knew so he could play them in his circa-1970 Plymouth with a big-block.