8-Track versus cassette
While JVC and Sony were duking it out over home video, those more concerned with audio were cruising down the road listening to an 8-track tape deck. There were mutterings, however, of these things called “cassettes”…
Developed by Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame, 8-track, or Stereo 8 cartridges as they were officially known, shot to prominence in the mid-60s, nestling under the dashboard of many a pick-up or muscle car. A lot of those early decks were developed by Motorola, which has tried its hand at pretty much everything down the years. 8-tracks were ahead of their time, allowing you to select tracks without the need to switch sides and in the late 1960s they boasted higher quality audio than the cassette.
On this occasion, victory was decided not by manufacturer spats, legal rows or missed marketing steps; it was more of a gentle evolution of the previously less successful format. The smaller, more versatile cassettes already boasted the ability to rewind – 8-tracks used a continuous loop of tape so you had to spool all the way to the end of a cartridge in order to go back to the beginning. Then, in 1971 the hi-fi era began, bringing improved build mechanism and tape quality.
Sony had a hand to play too. First, in 1964, it convinced Philips to free up its invention to other manufacturers. Then, 1978’s revolutionary Sony Walkman personal cassette player really turned the tide. In 1983, cassette sales even overtook those of LPs as Walkman sales soared.
By the time Billy Joel’s 52nd street was released on Philips’ new Compact Disc format in 1982, 8-track had disappeared from stores. The cassette had won, but 8-track lives on in the memory of many a grizzled Kiss or Rush fan, and in the constant loop tech that is used in movie projectors to this very day.