Play It Again: Promoter Has One-Track Mind About Eight Tracks
Tiny Tim's Former Manager Hopes to Open Museum for Obsolete Music Format
DALLAS—Last fall, more than 200 people crammed into one of this city's premier contemporary art galleries for a three-day show. The white walls, accustomed to paintings that sell for thousands of dollars, were home to less rarified fare.
The show? Eight Track Tapes: The Bucks Burnett Collection. "It was packed," says gallery owner Barry Whistler.
Presiding over the affair was James "Bucks" Burnett, a portly fellow with long gray hair and a white beard. He wore a tailored brown suit covered with images from the album cover of Led Zeppelin's 1973 Houses of the Holy. Strangers showed up offering boxes of eight tracks, which Mr. Burnett happily pawed through, plucking out dusty rarities and putting them on display.
The positive response "led me to think maybe I'm not insane," says Mr. Burnett. But it also helped him realize that a brief gallery show simply can't contain his vision for the hard plastic tapes, one of the clunkiest and most short-lived music formats of all time.
He wants to open an eight-track museum. "There are only two choices. A world with an eight-track museum and a world without an eight-track museum," he says. "I choose with."
Shortly after the show, the planners of a music conference in Denton, a music-loving college town about 40 miles north of Dallas, made Mr. Burnett an offer. They would find him a vacant space and pay $4,000 to build a temporary museum for a one-month run beginning Friday.
The Man Behind the (Eight-Track) Music
Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal
James "Bucks" Burnett has amassed a collection of about 2,000 eight-track cartridges.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal
Listen to some song clips from Mr. Burnett's collection.
* More photos and interactive graphics
Mr. Burnett accepted and is readying his collection for another display, this time in a former lingerie factory in Denton. He plans to showcase and play a few hundred tapes, including a baby-blue copy of The Who's "Tommy," a copy of the "Easy Rider" soundtrack with sun-bleached cover art signed by Peter Fonda and a rare copy of Lou Reed's 1975 avant-garde homage to noise called "Metal Machine Music."
This isn't the first time that Mr. Burnett, a long-time record-store owner, decided to venerate something the world was ready to forget. He edited the now-defunct Mr. Ed Fan Club newsletter for a decade. He managed the ukulele playing vibrato singer Tiny Tim and produced his final album.
At 51, he hopes to find a permanent home for his beloved eight-track collection. He has assembled a board of directors and is preparing to incorporate a nonprofit organization. "There are certainly lesser topics that have museums," Mr. Burnett says.
Peaking in popularity in the mid-1970s, eight-track tapes—about five by four inches—were made to be stuck in a back pocket and carelessly flung onto the vinyl seat of an AMC Pacer. They are the music version of cockroaches, hard to destroy. A 40-year-old tape can still sound rich and full.
Eight tracks were also revolutionary. They were the first truly portable music format, able to be played in a car, and therefore the forerunner of the Walkman, the boom box and even the iPod.
William Lear, better known for his eponymous jet, invented them in the early 1960s in part to provide music in the air. The format never quite took off above the clouds, but it did on the ground. In the 1960s, the eight track was a breakthrough in automobile music. It provided a much fuller sound than the sonically limited AM radio signal.
But the eight track's time atop the music-format food chain was brief. Its downfall was the cassette, which was smaller and ran longer, but was initially dogged by poor sound quality.
Companies poured research into cassettes, developing new coatings and tape material. In 1972, the famous "Is it live or is it Memorex?" advertising campaign began the process of convincing the music-buying public to give up their eight tracks.
When a cassette recording of Ella Fitzgerald, in a famous commercial, smashed a wine glass, the slow decline of the eight track had begun, says Jim Anderson, a professor at New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music.
Of course, the cassette was soon overtaken by the compact disc, which had superior sound quality. And today, the CD is giving way to digital downloading. Last year, Americans purchased 301 million compact discs and downloaded 78 million albums. They also downloaded 1.2 billion songs. Vinyl records sold 2.5 million. Only 34,000 albums were sold on cassette, according to Nielsen SoundScan, down from 105 million a decade ago. Nielson doesn't track eight-track sales.
Some brand new eight tracks are still made and sold. From her house in Arlington, Texas, Kathy Gibson, owner of KTS Productions, can crank out 10 an hour by hand, if the splicing machine isn't acting up and friends don't call on the phone to chat.
Last year, Cheap Trick, an American rock band that still performs but had its heyday in the late 1970s, placed a small order for its new album. It was popular enough that they asked for a second—and third—batch, she says. They are currently on back order, says the band's manager.
Eight tracks still show up on eBay and can command a premium. A quadraphonic eight track tribute album to the iconic rock band Led Zeppelin recently fetched $152. Mr. Burnett says finding some tapes—anything by trumpeter Miles Davis for instance—is really tough.
Mr. Burnett, who got his first job at a now-defunct Dallas record store in 1974 after winning an Alice Cooper-look-alike contest, didn't start collecting eight tracks until 1988, when he found an odd looking copy of the Beatles' White Album at a flea market. He decided to build a complete eight-track collection of the Fab Four, an endeavor that took more than two decades.
Along the way, he started selling eight tracks at his record store—by accident. He displayed a tape of the British punk band the Sex Pistols that he had bought for a dime on the wall near the cash register of his store.
"To ward off potential purchases and because I didn't want to sell it," he put a $100 price tag on it. "Then one day this girl came in and pulled a c-note out of her purse and bought it."
He recently sold off a good chunk of his CD collection to raise money to buy a few hard-to-find eight tracks for the gallery show. He hopes the permanent museum, whenever and wherever that might be, will be self supporting. He plans to charge a $5 admission fee.
Until that day, he continues working part-time jobs as a cashier at a local bakery and record store. His love of music—mostly classic rock—is keeping him going while he tries to turn his dream of a museum into a reality.
A couple nights a week, after his wife goes to sleep, he unwinds by listening to an album on headphones.
He doesn't own a working eight-track player. "Collectors buy things, they don't use things," he says. Instead, Bucks Burnett listens to his music on compact disc.