Perfect Sound Forever


by Ben Dyment
(April 2017)

Let's talk 8-Tracks. Yeah, you heard me right - the veritable démodé bane of thrift store shelves, forgotten basement boxes and swap meets the world over. Whether you view 'em as an easy answer for its time or the auditory world's pet rock, they made their mark and kept it up for a period before falling victim to the perpetual Format Wars, discarded amongst the other obsolete debris of last century.

Lately though, I can't help but find my thoughts drifting towards them, wondering if perhaps the cassette culture that's staked a sliver of consumer territory over the past decade doesn't share some similarities with its lowly cartridge cousin and its fringe following during the early to mid '90's.

At their beginnings, both formats were products of the same approach, taking reel technology and miniaturizing it for easier consumer use, and for a while the 8-Track was the superior result, offering the first truly portable format to the public, making it the king of the nighttime world and best friend of Detroit's tin chariots. But the cassette quickly caught up in fidelity, and by the time Columbia House et al said 'blow' to all the 8-trackers in the late 80s, the sight of the bulbous plastic hanging out of rocker panels was already a faded memory for many.

The minority users and abusers left in the lurch, however, refused to quit. What other format gave you the ability to score all the Sally Can't Dance and Metal Machine Music (sealed, too!) copies you'd ever want for pennies on the dollar? Enthusiasts could pick up boxes stuffed to the brim with half-forgotten albums while everybody else had been coerced and sold on the wonders of compact discs. It also helped that the format was home for titles never found elsewhere, such as the discography of truckstop comedian Gene Tracy, manufactured so cheaply that the cross-channel bleed-through is almost as loud as the source material.

Like amateur historians, they crafted an underground celebration of the media, populated in small pockets of scattered towns and cities and recorded in loving Xerox by the legendary 8-Track Mind zine amongst other outlets. Mind editor Russ Forster went as far as travelling across America in the mid-'90's to document this displaced tribe, turning the journey into the 92-minute, 16mm documentary So Wrong They're Right. By the turn of the century though, eBay and other banes of the 'modern' times forced the 8-track out of the hands of aficionados and into its final guise, this time as overpriced 'remember when' retro memorabilia with jacked collector-scum prices to boot, or housed on permanent display at places like the Eight Track Museum in Dallas and New York, run by obsessive Bucks Burnett.

photos from 8-Track Heaven

Over the past decade or so, cassettes seem to have come in from the cold and into this same sort of light. Every few months, you can find articles espousing the 'new revival,' people are going out to purchase new decks and scour through the thrift store collections, and everybody and their dog are starting up ten new tape labels out of their bedrooms. It helps that the cassette was used for personal recordings from the start (is 'Home Taping' Still Killing Music?), while few artists used the 8-Track for their own music (barring some exceptions, like H8-Track Stereo, Sean Beard's Harsh Noise Wall label, which puts out small batches to this day). The majority of these labels put out small-batch runs of definite-fringe stuff, working with artists on a global scale and selling product through Bandcamp sites or other avenues, physical and digital. The typical definitions apply - ambient/experimental/lo-fi/noise, etc.. Multiple podcasts dedicated to tape releases have been on the air for years, with Tabs Out and Norelco Mori being two of the more-well known outlets. They've also moved beyond where the 8-Track got to, to become the best merch item next to a T-shirt; something cheap and easy to produce and have on hand for fans to pick up. Whether or not the majority of people who buy tapes bother playing them anymore, especially when almost all tapes come with download codes inside the j-cards, is another thing. But even as simply physical product, it proves its worth for people unable or unwilling to shell out the funds for vinyl pressing.

Some have said it's nothing more than a last gasp affectation, filling the need for a transient consumer fetish as vinyl dillentates realize that fad isn't passing anytime soon and search for the next fix, and with Urban Outfitters pushing Justin Bieber tapes onto their clientele in 2015, you'd be hard pressed to deny there's some truth there. But for others, cassettes give the same sense of community and platform for fringe weirdo artists that the 8-Track gave twenty years ago.

It would be easy to look at both scenes as being nothing more than passing movements that never had much weight to them in the grand overview of participants and total demographics, but that would be too easy. The quick-shtick tactics of major labels putting out joke tapes like Bieber and cohorts will surely pass, but those who are into it through basic natural affinity will stick with it while recognizing the inherent dissonance of buying tapes in this day and age. And unlike the 8-Track movement, nobody who's into cassettes right now is doing it out of an inability to get their music any other way, so in terms of a viable commodity device, it's a definite wash.

The cassette may very well be the 8-track of this decade; tomorrow's might be MiniDV tapes, 3.5 floppy disks, or new old stock wax cylinders. Hell, maybe bands will just record straight onto hacked Yak Baks and trade 'em for Alf Pogs. Whether or not they last in spirit for another decade or another month is its own matter, but its status alone as a revitalized format long considered dead in the water by the industry just proves that it ain't over in the public's eye until they say it's over, which is how it should be in the long run.

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