MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
These days, you can tote your entire music collection around on an iPod the size of a postage stamp, but cast your mind back 40 years or more. In the 1960s and early '70s, 8-track tapes were the common technology.
Today, we begin a series devoted to music formats. Stephen Becker of member station KERA reports on the 8-track and its legacy.
STEPHEN BECKER: Bucks Burnett was rummaging through bins at a garage sale in 1988 when something caught his eye: The Beatles' "White Album" on 8-track tape.
BUCKS BURNETT: And so I'm thinking: Oh, I'll get this for 50 cents. And I said: How much for the 8-track? And the guy says $7. And I said: No, the 8-track? And he said $7. I said: Will you take five? He said: Put it back in the box. I said: Okay, well, wait a minute. Why is this 8-track $7? He said: It's the Beatles. It's the "White Album." Where are you going to find another one? And I gave him seven bucks.
BECKER: More than 3,000 8-tracks later, Burnett's collection is so large he opened the 700-square-foot Eight Track Museum.
BURNETT: Welcome to the house of tracks.
BECKER: He displays between 500 and 1,000 tapes, as well as an example of every type of physical recorded music from the wax cylinders of the 1800s to the iPod.
Wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt, Burnett brushes his long, stringy grey hair out of his face and sits down on the museum's bright teal floor to thumb through the clear plastic boxes that hold his tapes.
BURNETT: I have a bunch of Pink Floyd. Everybody remembers "Dark Side of the Moon," but how many people have it on a quadraphonic purple 8-track? That's pretty cool.
BECKER: The 8-track started to get attention in 1965. That's almost exactly when cassette tapes were introduced to the market. The difference is that 8-tracks were marketed to play music. Cassettes were pitched as at-home recording devices. When Ford Motor Company began to offer 8-track decks in its 1966 model cars, the format took off.
HOWARD KRAMER: It gave people mobility for their music collections.
BECKER: That's Howard Kramer, the curatorial director for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
KRAMER: It allowed you to say, you know, I'm going to go on a trip. I'm going to stop at the store, and I'm going to buy the new Beatles record, the new George Jones record and be able to listen to just what you want and not twist around on the AM dial trying to find music.
BECKER: But 8-tracks did have their limitations.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BECKER: Say it's 1977, and you're listening to the newest David Bowie song through your girlfriend's portable 8-track player. Eight-track tapes typically divided up a two-sided LP into four programs. If the songs could not be split up evenly, a song might be cut in two, as on Bowie's "Heroes" album.
(SOUNDBITE OF "HEROES")
BECKER: First there was a fade out, followed by a click that indicated the program change. Burnett says the dreaded click could be a mood killer, depending on, well, the situation.
BURNETT: Typically, you would, just for two or three seconds, you would stop making out, wait until the click and then go back at it. It was sort of a ritual.
BECKER: By the late '70s, format wars were being fought on multiple fronts. VHS tapes were taking over the home video market from Betamax and the public began to buy more cassettes than 8-tracks. The Rock Hall's Kramer says there were plenty of reasons.
KRAMER: The cassette surpassed the 8-track because of its mobility and also its fidelity. There was less cramming of music onto the tape, and they were smaller and easier to carry.
BECKER: That mobility was increased as boomboxes and other portable cassette players like the Sony Walkman were introduced. But despite its drawbacks, Bucks Burnett says the 8-track's legacy is worth preserving.
BURNETT: We all have formats we like. We all have formats we hate. But the thing is, every single format was someone's format. That format is what connected them with music.
BECKER: The 8-track wasn't even Burnett's format. That was the cassette. But since picking up that "White Album" at the garage sale, he's become a fanatic, and the museum's $10 admission fee will allow him to grow the collection.
His larger goal is to preserve the physical pieces of music history that have become obsolete in the age of digital music.
BURNETT: We're moving on to nearly 120 years of prerecorded physical formats that were sold to the public. That's absolutely astounding to me. So are we really going to let all that go away and disappear just because of a little thing called an MP3? Not on my watch, we're not.
BECKER: For NPR News, I'm Stephen Becker in Dallas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NORRIS: And next week, our series on music formats: pull out your old cassettes. Some devotees are still using them to record and sell new music.
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