Sometimes known as 8-track cartridges, 8-track tapes are a type of recording technology that along with cassettes and vinyl records served as a primary format for the distribution of recordings during the 1960s and 1970s. Considered an improvement over the reel-to-reel tapes that were common prior to 1960, 8-track tapes offered a means of using recording tape to create copies of recordings while providing the protection of a sealed plastic housing that helped to minimize the incidence of damage to the tape. For a number of years, new releases by major record companies were offered in each of these formats, until the cassette tape eventually emerged as a more popular and reliable option to 8-tracks in the late 1970s.
The functionality of 8-track tapes made it possible to arrange and record music on the tapes in a fashion that provided high-quality sound. The system called for the use of a process that was sometimes known as "switching tracks." When this switch took place, the song currently being played would fade, followed by an audible click. Once the progression was complete, the song would fade back in and continue. This particular aspect of 8-track tapes was viewed unfavorably by consumers, prompting them to eventually move away from the tapes and purchase cassettes in growing numbers by the end of the 1970s.
While immensely popular in the United States for a period of time, this particular technology experienced limited appeal in other parts of the world. Outside of the United Kingdom, Canada, and a few other nations, the use of 8-track technology was virtually unknown. Even within the United States, opinions on the merits of 8-track tapes versus vinyl or cassette tapes varied, with some finding the larger and more cumbersome 8-tracks to be inferior to the more compact cassette tapes. Others found the sound quality provided by 8-tracks to be superior to that offered by vinyl or cassette releases, and also found that 8-track systems installed in cars tended to function more efficiently than the early auto cassette systems.
For much of the 1960s and until the end of the 1970s, releases by new artists were typically made available to consumers as vinyl records, cassettes, and 8-track tapes. Typically, the three options were sold side by side in record stores and other retail outlets. It was not unusual for combination stereo systems of the day to include a turntable, AM/FM radio, cassette deck and 8-track tape player, allowing consumers to make use of all of these media without the need to buy separate equipment for each one.