More Than 20 Years After Their Death, Eight-Tracks Are Resurrected In Dallas.
Before 1988, Bucks Burnett didn't consider eight-track tapes particularly significant. Sure, he managed the eight-track section of the long-defunct Peaches Records on Lemmon Avenue in the late '70s and early '80s, but he didn't own any eight-tracks—not a single one.
To him, it was just another format, another means to hear the popular music of the time. In those days, he didn't see these tapes the way he does now—as the format that made music portable, a format directly tied to the American car culture of the '60s and '70s, historical artifacts that stand as perfect signs of their time.
Developed throughout the '50s and '60s by Bill Lear, the same man behind the Lear Jet, eight-track technology was thought to be monumental. By recording music onto magnetic tape that could retain two separate tracks at once and be played back in stereo, the eight-track opened the music world up to a slew of possibilities—most important, perhaps, being that their continuous loops meant that they never stopped playing; listeners could pop cartridges into their players and hear music for hours at a time.
But, by 1982, the major labels started phasing the technology out of record shops, replacing them with the far more cheaply produced cassette tapes that reigned so supremely over the '80s and early '90s. Few cried foul. The eight-track's time, it seemed, had simply come and gone.
Just before they became the distant memory that they are today, Burnett finally gave in and, on a whim, bought his first eight-track in 1988—the very year the format stopped being mass-produced by major labels. He was drawn in by a single cartridge—the Beatles' white album—not planning to start the collection of tapes he boasts today.
Now, the format consumes his life. Since March of last year, Burnett has been working diligently toward a vision that will come to fruition on February 14, when he opens his Eight-Track Museum in Deep Ellum. It's the first of its kind.
In the world.
And that's kind of a big deal.
At the moment, though, Burnett's museum is kind of a small deal. Housed within three separate rooms in the Deep Ellum Foundation building on Commerce Street, right next to the Tex-Mex restaurant Sol's Taco Lounge, his museum shares space with the offices of various small businesses. As such, it doesn't really feel like a museum. It feels like the office building that it is.
Burnett, to his credit, has done what he can to change that feeling. He's painted the walls, he's furnished them with shelves and he's covered them with the bulk of his eight-track collection—one that checks in at maybe 3,000 tapes or so.
"Which is a small collection, by the way," says Burnett, milling about the largest of his museum's rooms—its permanent exhibit space, he calls it—and showcasing the rarest tracks in his collection, which are highlighted by the complete Beatles eight-track catalog.
The rest of the room is more a work in progress. The near wall hosts Burnett's collection of other long-forgotten music formats—wax cylinders, four-tracks, circular eight-track cartridges. The far wall is more of a catch-all, shelves hosting an alphabetized display of the rest of his eight-track collection. The fourth wall, meanwhile, shows more disarray. Though its face remains bare, the floor in front of it is covered in boxes—boxes also filled with eight-tracks. The disorganized appearance is not unlike that given off by Burnett himself, a somewhat shabby-looking bearded man whose shoulder-length hair has started graying, except for where he's colored it with splotches of purple.
He still needs time to properly prepare the room, he says. But that's OK by him: "I'm going to spend the rest of my life, or at least the rest of the museum's life, curating this space," Burnett says of the museum, which after a soft opening on Christmas Day, will earn its formal introduction this week.
Burnett knows that the general public might think what he's doing—opening a museum for a music format that stopped being mass-produced decades ago—is a bit off.
But, oddly enough, Burnett isn't the sole eight-track proponent in the region. Joining him are two other local players. There's Nathan Brown, a 37-year-old Fort Worth resident who runs an eight-track label called Dead Media. And there are Arlington's Kathy and Dan Gibson, who not only run an online eight-track store called Kate's Track Shack, but who handle all facets of eight-track cartridge repairs and who have also launched their own successful eight-track production house, called KTS Productions.
If only on the strength of these three entities' efforts, Dallas-Fort Worth has indisputably, and rather inexplicably, become the modern-day eight-track hub of the world.
Even while admitting eight-track is not his preferred format for listening to music, Burnett argues in favor of the format's merits—not because eight-tracks were necessarily so great, but because, for a time, they were believed to be. That's an important reveal, since, to hear Burnett tell it, his museum is just the start of a grander plan at play. The Eight-Track Museum, he says, is his first step to make sure the world doesn't forget any format through which music has ever been distributed.
"It's my job to remind people," he says. "Because it's my calling. Because I'm a formatician—and I just made that word up. "
His mission is simple.
"People need to stop throwing music away," he says, his normally calm demeanor suddenly replaced with visible disgust. "And don't apologize to me for throwing your music away, either. No. No. Fuck you."
"This isn't so much about eight-tracks," he continues. "This isn't so much about dead formats. This isn't even about all formats. It's, for me, about physical formats. Are we going to just throw away our history?"
Here's the thing about Bucks Burnett: At his core, he's a salesman—and a great one at that. Like every strong salesman, he's a good talker.
His favorite subject, it shouldn't surprise, is music—something on which he is qualified to speak. Aside from his extensive work in various record stores (he's worked in so many, he can't recall the number), Burnett has spent the past three-and-a-half decades as a flat-out music obsessive, writing songs, playing in bands, and speaking out about the Dallas music scene. He's a fascinating figure, one who can speak as intelligently about the past four decades in Dallas music history as just about anybody around. He's seen it all, he's quick to remind.
More than that, though, he wants to push the local scene's boundaries.
Last year, when his band Rachel Bazooka released its debut album, that alone wasn't enough. Burnett, who clearly enjoys terms like "first" and "only," made a point to release the disc as a double-album—the first double-album debut from any Dallas act and, far as he can tell, only the fourth double-album debut in history, behind releases from Frank Zappa, Chicago and George Harrison. And that's saying nothing of the fact that he further obscured the release, called Colorbl nd, by making sure there were no words or images on its packaging, just colors. Even more interestingly, he marketed Rachel Bazooka's debut by claiming that the band's music was the debut of "The Dallas Sound."
He has a point: Dallas has had some distinct movements that have shaped its past—the blues of Deep Ellum in the '20s, the country music of the '40s and '50s, the alternative rock 'n' roll movements of the '80s and '90s and, perhaps, the rise of the local hip-hop scene these days—but none of these have been massive enough to give the local music scene a singular identity to call its own.
Burnett is aware of this. And whether Rachel Bazooka's bluesy take on rock is indicative of the "Dallas sound," turns out, isn't all that important. What's important is that he tried to find that sound—and, when he couldn't, he decided to define it himself.
"If you can't be the best at something," he says with a smile, "be the first at something."
Coupled with his other efforts, ideas like this might qualify Burnett as Dallas music's greatest provocateur. Beyond his museum and his band, he also currently runs a micro record store housed in East Dallas thrift store Dolly Python—a record store, he's proud to report, that made a profit last year. And, along with the opening of the Eight-Track Museum, Burnett has launched a new eight-track-exclusive record label—one which will debut its first two releases at the museum's grand opening. Called Cloud 8, the label is no slouch: Burnett has signed two acts to the label, local folk favorite The O's and '80s Talking Heads offshoot the Tom Tom Club. To go with the more traditional CD and vinyl releases of their new efforts, which will be released through other entities, both acts will release limited runs of eight-track versions of their albums through Cloud 8—simple collectibles to some, but entities that will nonetheless function in a working eight-track player.
"I want credit for being the guy in Dallas who's trying to make the scene cooler," he says. "I've got a record store, a record label and a museum. What else do I need to do? I've lost too much money in show business to not get a trophy for it. This is all I care about. And I'm gonna stay in it to win it."
And with eight-tracks, obscure as they may be these days, Burnett thinks he may have finally found a winner in his constant search for the Dallas music scene identity. Sure, there's a certain amusing quality to it all, but Burnett, who was once profiled in a documentary on eight-track obsessives called So Wrong, They're Right, truly believes that eight-tracks could be the foothold on which Dallas music forms its next identity.
"It's at least five percent joke," he says of his support of the eight-track. "I'd hate for it to lose that quality. I can laugh with the people that laugh at me. I get all that. And it's justified. But there's a very serious side to it, too."
For Kathy and Dan Gibson, eight-tracks have provided them a means to a lifestyle. While raising their three daughters in Arlington, the couple was searching for a way to support their family and to give Kathy the chance to work as a stay-at-home mom.
They found what they were looking for in eight-tracks, a format they admit they viewed as a relic until 1998. That's when Dan, while restoring a 1968 AMC Javelin—the same car he had as a teenager—came up with the idea to seek out an eight-track player to install in the dashboard. The next step was finding cartridges to listen to in the player—which wasn't nearly as difficult a task as they'd expected. Friends would come across eight-tracks at garage sales and send them the Gibsons' way. The rest of their collection, they bought over the Internet.
But they noticed something while seeking out tapes: Eight-tracks were surprisingly expensive to purchase online, even though, in the real world, they could be found dirt cheap if you knew where to look. So they launched an online store of their own, called it Kate's Track Shack, and significantly reduced the market cost of eight-tracks. They bought collections in bulk—including, at one point, a collection of Burnett's excess tapes—at cost, and started selling them, individually, for 75 cents a cartridge. It didn't take long for their store to become a major player in the Internet-centric eight-track scene. Almost immediately, they started selling around 150 tapes per week—which, in this world, is a significant amount.
And yet that's only the start of their story. These days, theirs is a business that can handle pretty much every concern an eight-track collector might have. They buy cartridges, they sell cartridges, they repair cartridges, they sell cartridge repair kits, they sell customized cartridge sleeves, and, most recently, they launched KTS Productions, the banner under which they also produce new eight-track tapes. They've even trademarked their own piece of eight-track equipment, The Win-Gib Eight-Track Revitalizer, which, in essence, is simply a foam pad that can be used to replace the old, worn-out pieces of foam that exist within cartridges, enabling the actual tape inside to be read by a player.
The Gibsons have sold, by their estimate, a quarter million of these pads.
"Kathy doesn't just sell the eight-tracks," Dan boasts of his wife's business. "She's basically recreated everything you need to keep your eight-track going. And nobody else is doing that."
In 2009, when Cheap Trick wanted to produce eight-track copies of their album The Latest, if only as a bit, they came to the Gibsons to get that done. That deal further turned the Gibsons into stars of the eight-track world. When Cheap Trick went on the blitz to promote their album, they pushed the fact that they were also releasing it on eight-track—and the media ate it up. Among the places the band found themselves promoting their new album was Comedy Central's Colbert Report—whose host Stephen Colbert employed the same mocking tone so many others take these days when discussing the format. But when Cheap Trick passed through the region to tour on the new release, they appreciatively invited the Gibsons to come see them play, and, afterward, they met them backstage.
Says Dan, "There's nothing about this that isn't fun."
But the Gibsons are quite clear about their motives—they're running a business, they say. And they're proud to report, their eight-track business is paying for their daughters' college educations. Yet, even with eight-tracks strewn throughout their home, the Gibsons downplay the medium's role in their lives. In their defense, they seem more retro-obsessed than eight-track-obsessed. Two restored 1970s AMC Pacers sit out in their driveway. A number of the landline telephones in their home are rotaries.
"Don't get me wrong," Dan says while tinkering with a few damaged eight-tracks from his perch at his kitchen table. "I like the new stuff, too. I have an iPhone. I just like to take the best of each era."
And they're not the only ones appreciative of the eight-track era. Perhaps the most notable of the Gibsons' accomplishments is the fact that they were behind the first eight-track cartridge going into space—which only happened recently, in 2010. NASA astronaut Doug Wheeler, a massive REO Speedwagon fan, reached out to the Gibsons through a friend to see if they might be able to provide him with an eight-track to bring on the space shuttle. The Gibsons were happy to comply, not only providing Wheeler with a copy of REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity, but also a copy, fittingly, of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon.
"We were hoping they'd actually throw them out into space and that they could just float around up there," Kathy says. "But then we'd probably get in trouble for space trash."
Indeed, one astronaut's space trash is another man's treasure.
"I really think that, aside from reel-to-reel tape, the eight-track format is the best-sounding thing," says Nathan Brown, who runs the Dead Media eight-track label out of Fort Worth. "With a good player, and high-quality speakers, it just sounds awesome. Better than CD. Better than vinyl."
Unlike Burnett or the Gibsons, Brown was too young in the '70s to recall the grasp eight-tracks had over the market. Yet, at 37, he truly believes in the format as a proper means for listening, even if folks like Burnett scoff at the notion. Brown's stance is that, with modern-day technology to pair with them, eight-tracks can be a more viable option for sound quality in the future than they ever were in the past.
"I have no nostalgia for the format or anything," Brown says, emphatically. "And it's not about novelty for me, either. I do it for the sound quality. It's the way music sounds best. First of all, you're forced to listen to the entire performance. [There's no fast-forward or rewind, just random shuffling about the tracks.] But, beyond that, it's about the actual technology at play. CDs and mp3s are digital renderings of performances. I believe that the energy the band puts out in a recording can be best found on an eight-track tape. It's an actual, physical echo of their performance."
A recent transplant from Little Rock, Brown himself is a musician who performs around the region under the moniker of Browningham, which might explain his stance on the authenticity of the format's sound—he's not just another listener. And he really is doing his part to push the format: On February 5, at Fort Worth venue The Grotto, his company, which he's run since 2006, celebrated its first local eight-track release, a tape from area outfit Secret Ghost Champion. Unlike Burnett's Cloud 8 label, which uses KTS Productions to produce its tapes, Brown manufactures all his releases on his own, in his home.
He's quite committed to it, too. In the coming months, he'll be releasing more tapes—from acts such as the Me-Thinks and area favorite RTB2—all of which will feature unique recordings that Brown himself will handle, and which won't be able to be found on any other format. Interestingly, Brown says, selling these bands on the appeal of eight-track releases isn't much of a concern. Younger people aren't opposed to eight-tracks, he says. They just don't know—and are too young to remember—why the long-forgotten eight-track format can still be a successful one. His job, as he sees it, is to explain it to them.
"It's a technology thing," he says. "And an educational thing."
He wants the world to see eight-tracks the way he does. And his stance is admirable, though a little bizarre. After all, even if he is able to convince artists to join him on his mission, how will their music be heard? It's not like eight-track players—or, at least, ones of the quality that Brown wants his tapes played upon—are easily found these days.
Not surprisingly, Brown has a plan on that front, too.
"I would love to manufacture an eight-track player," he says. "Can't you envision it? A new player that you can buy at Walmart, that comes with a bundle of 20 classic rock tapes? It would be cheap, too."
Hey, if someone's going to do that, it might as well be him. And it might as well happen here.
"I have not found anywhere else in the whole world doing as much for eight-tracks right now as is happening in the metroplex," Brown says. "Just by dumb luck or whatever, it's all happening here."
Perhaps it's just a matter of Dallas-Fort Worth being ahead of the curve. Nostalgia, after all, is big these days. And eight-tracks are as nostalgia-inducing as it gets.
"Eight-tracks are one of those things that just carry such powerful associations," says Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "If you're of a certain age, you had to get one of those players in your car—and right away. It's kind of locked in amber, the idea of eight-tracks. As soon as you hear someone say 'eight-track,' it immediately brings you back. A lot of nostalgia doesn't."
But, Thompson argues, eight-track preservation should be about more than nostalgia-mongering.
"Listen: Some of this stuff does matter," he says. "I find it highly disturbing how formats are being allowed to disappear the way they are."
Burnett may jokingly refer to himself as a "formatician," but Thompson sees it as no laughing matter. "Format archaeology," as he calls it, is something not to be taken lightly. Given the hold that eight-tracks once held over the market, he too argues staunchly for the format's importance. They're an entity that people need to remember.
"Especially if you're the Library of Congress," Thompson adds.
And yet, that's not quite what the Library of Congress thinks.
"There are preferred formats for copyright, which is largely how we determine our collection," says Bryan Cornell, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress. "And we always prefer LPs over eight-tracks."
According to Cornell, the Library of Congress has roughly 500,000 vinyl records in its collection and "some 5,000 eight-tracks or so, and maybe significantly less." He laughs a little when asked why the collection isn't any larger.
"It's fair to say that we actively try not to get eight-tracks," he says.
And yet, despite this position, the Library of Congress' collection is vastly more significant than the collections boasted in other national museums. Representatives for the National Archives say that there are no eight-tracks in their museum's collection. The Smithsonian Institution, meanwhile, boasts "a couple dozen, maybe," according to Hal Wallace, curator for the Institution's electricity collection.
Wallace, though, also sees value in Burnett's Eight-Track Museum efforts: "If someone's doing that," he says, "then that's great."
Turns out, though, Burnett isn't the first person to have come up with the idea of an eight-track tape museum. That designation belongs to Bob Hiemenz, a semi-retired newspaper publisher in Flora, Illinois, who for the past few years has been engaged in a similar effort. And he might be more qualified than Burnett to run such an entity.
His eight-track collection numbers somewhere in the vicinity of 69,000 tapes—the largest collection in the world. Like Burnett and the Gibsons, his collection started by accident: Hidden within a home stereo console he'd bought at a thrift store to mine for parts to repair a different set of speakers, he found a small collection of tapes that, for no particular reason, spoke to him. And then he just kept buying more and more of them. Doing so earned him quite the reputation, too. Before long, people just started giving them to him. Three years ago, he was given a set of 30,000 tapes by the widow of a New Mexico collector.
"Little old ladies, they just send them to me," Hiemenz says.
Sometimes, they don't even know his name. When the post office receives a package addressed to "the eight-track guy in Flora," the postal workers in this town of 5,000 know exactly for whom it's intended.
"I'm the eight-track hoarder," Hiemenz admits. "I just think they're so neat."
And, like Burnett, he wants others to appreciate the medium, too.
"I think there should be an eight-track museum in every state in the United States," he says.
First, though, he'd like one in Flora. One problem: The city isn't so sure about that.
For the past few years, Hiemenz, a former member of the Flora City Council, has been embroiled in a debate with the current powers that be. There's a vacant building downtown, he says, that would make for a perfect spot for his museum. It could be a tourist attraction for Flora, he says, a non-profit museum (unlike Burnett's) that would benefit various youth organizations in town. In exchange, he's asked the town to pay its electric and water bills. But the city refuses. And so the debate rages on.
To hear Hiemenz tell it, it's become quite the hot-button issue in Flora—so significant, he says, that it might sway upcoming elections.
"We think it'll happen eventually," he says. "It's just a matter of time."
Unfortunately for him, though, come Valentine's Day, the opportunity to open the first eight-track museum in the world will have passed from Hiemenz and Flora to Burnett and Dallas.
Walking around his still-being-prepared museum, Burnett is quick to extol the eight-track format's virtues.
"You look at this stuff, and you can just envision people driving around, listening to the music of their choice, or taking their music with them to the beach for the first time," he says. But, more than that, he argues, their existence alone is enough to merit celebration. "Every format is an important part of a band's output," he says. "If it's official product, it's an official part of that band's history."
That, actually, is how Burnett got turned on to eight-tracks in the first place. A near-maniacal Beatles fan, Burnett got into the eight-track game because, at a garage sale in the M Streets, he found an eight-track copy of the Beatles' white album. (Fun fact: The white album, in eight-track form, comes in black packaging.) He bought it, took the tape home, placed it on a mantel in his living room, and got inspired.
"I just thought," he says, "'How cool would it be to have all the Beatles' eight-tracks?'"
It took him five years to complete his collection—which, he believes, is the only complete Beatles eight-track collection in the world. While building this Beatles collection, though, he started acquiring other cartridges along the way.
"You see five Pink Floyd tapes at a garage sale and what are you gonna do, not buy them?" he asks rhetorically.
Now, though his isn't the biggest collection, he's convinced that it's the most impressively curated.
"I want the best and the coolest and the rarest and the most beautiful," he says.
And, Burnett believes, people will be interested in seeing that—so much so that he has tentative plans to open a second Eight-Track Museum in Brooklyn, New York, by 2012.
Professor Thompson tends to agree with him about the level of interest.
"I imagine that a lot of people, by just hearing about this museum, would be happy to make a pilgrimage to go see it," he says.
The early returns would seem to back Thompson up. With every turn Burnett has taken to celebrate the eight-track, there's only been more interest awaiting him. It started in 2009, when he was invited to showcase his collection as an art exhibit in the Barry Whistler Gallery. That show led to him displaying his collection at Denton's annual music festival, the 35 Conferette—where he, for the first time, started calling it, "The Eight-Track Museum." With that exhibit, the national media caught wind; The Wall Street Journal even featured his efforts in a front-page piece the day of his Denton opening.
But, to hear Burnett tell it, the museum's inspiration goes back even further: It's been 19 years in the making, he says, beginning when he started to work on his own eight-track documentary, called Spinal Tape. Featuring interviews with music luminaries such as legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, the film focuses on the eight-track's importance in the grand scheme of music formats.
"I needed an ending for the movie," Burnett says with a smirk that implies that he's only half-kidding. Nonetheless, with the museum finally opening, he might well have found a way to put a tail on his decades-long effort.
Even if, as he candidly admits, he's still not exactly sure what he's doing.
"I'm totally winging it," he says, throwing his hands up in despair. "But I also think this is the most sensible thing I may have ever done—even if it doesn't seem to be. I mean, what was I supposed to do? Sit around and wait for somebody else to open an eight-track museum?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.