Friday, January 22, 2010


Historian David Morton indicates in Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (2000) that the first significant mass-market success of audio tape technology in America was the “Stereo 8” cartridge system, otherwise known as the 8-Track. Introduced in 1965, the 8-Track was promoted by William Lear (after whom the Learjet is named), who built it “around an existing endless-loop cartridge for background music applications, the Fidelipac” (159). Morton writes:

After modifying the cartridge enough to win a set of patents on it, he [Lear] wisely combined his company’s resources with those of several other top firms: the manufacturing capability of the Motorola corporation, the record catalog of RCA-Victor, and the marketing organization of the Ford Motor Company. (159-60)

Priced at $128, the Ford 8-Track player was instantly successful, and quickly, Morton indicates, “other U.S. auto manufacturers and third-party equipment retailers offered it as early as 1966” (160). Hence the 8-Track’s success was a consequence of its portability, a factor that has determined the direction of research in home electronics and popular music for the past 45 years (think of the small, inexpensive transistor radio). The 8-Track was to the automobile what the Sony Walkman (in the 1980s) was to jogging, revealing the crucial connection between the home audio system and the need for portable music, otherwise known as compatibility. In other words, the crucial factor determining the consumption of popular music the past several decades is not “high fidelity,” but portability. Since World War II and the rise of home audio, the audio manufacturers have typically touted “high fidelity” as a major factor in determining home audio purchases, and while this feature is still no doubt crucial for many enthusiasts (so-called audiophiles), for the majority of consumers, the crucial factor is mobility. Hence, like so much other cultural activity, the automobile has organized our behavior.

The compact disc brought about the demise of audio tape technology, replacing the cassette (which replaced the 8-Track) with the iPod. Hence the iPod is to the CD what cassettes and 8-Tracks were to the vinyl LP. Reshuffling (randomization) replaces the predictability (stability) of the record, and the déclassé technology assumes the status of a found object, the technological equivalent of the fossil record. The archeologist is replaced by the antiquarian.

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