The potential alternatives to the LP record that existed at the time of its invention are: reel-to-reel, 8-track, the cassette, and the 45 rpm single. These potential alternatives had some advantages over the LP Record. However, they also had significant disadvantages that would hinder their performance, and cause the LP Record to be the standard musical format. Despite the odds, though, some of these alternatives went on to achieve a measure of success at the time, and were later (when the technology had caught up with the audio standards set by the LP Record) adopted as industry standards.
These alternatives can be generally divided up into two categories. The first category is magnetic tape recording. Magnetic tape recording involves using magnetized tape in order to record sound. Originally metal wires were used, however these were later replaced with paper coated in iron oxide.1This would later go on to become the industry standard that replaced the LP. Magnetized tape is the highest quality form of analog recording available. However, at the time that it was first invented, this was not the case. Magnetized tape simply was not able to live up to the standard set by vinyl records at the time. Because of this, it would not be until the late 1960s that technology for recording on magnetized tape had evolved to the point at which it could compete with the LP record for dominance of the industry. 2
There are many examples present of systems that used magnetized tape. Reel-to-reel recorders, 8-track tapes, and cassettes are some of the more widely known (and used) examples. However, each of these systems presented their own issues, that would prevent them from being adopted at the time. The only one of these systems that would go on to achieve a moderate measure of success at the time it was invented the 8-track tape. The rest would either fade into obscurity (one example of this is what happened with reel-to-reel recording), or have to wait for the technology to improve further (such as what happened with the cassette, or the 8-track).
Reel-to-reel recording was the first real form of magnetic tape recording to be developed. These recorders used big reels of tape in order to record music. Reel-to-reel would (in the end) come to represent the highest quality recording possible. This higher quality made them appealing to music studios. The system also had one major advantage that simply was not possible with LP Vinyl: one could edit the music.3 Recording artists could use reel-to-reel recorders to edit sections of music. The term “splicing” comes from cutting out sections of tape, and gluing them back together. These advantages made the system appealing from a recording standpoint. However, the system had more drawbacks than advantages, and these would limit it in the commercial market. The first major draw back was the cost. Prerecorded reel-to-reel was expensive.4 Because of this, reel-to-reel was simply too expensive to be a major competitor in the music industry. While it did experience some limited success, it was never a serious competitor to the LP record in this regard. Reel-to-reel players take up lots of space, and are very difficult to operate. Their operation involved threading the film through the machine, which was difficult to do. In contrast, it was much easier to insert a tape or an LP record into a player, than it was to play music on reel-to-reel. The system was also limited by amount of music available for it at the time. Since it was never adopted as an industry standard outside of the recording booth, the genres of music available for reel-to-reel were limited to big name celebrities and classical music.
The second major contender with the LP record at the time was the 8-track tape. The 8-track tape represents the only real direct competition that the LP record faced at the time. The 8-track tape was the first real refinement of the reel-to-reel system. The 8-track was developed with the idea of simplifying the process of playing reel-to-reel recordings. It did this by enclosing the film in a cartridge, negating the process of having to thread the film through the machine every time one wanted to play music.5 This process was patented by William Lear (the founder of Learjet), and marketed to the mass public. Lear did this through marketing his invention to car companies.6 The Ford Motor company was the first to make 8-track players standard on all of their cars. General Motors and Chrysler would soon follow suit. However, this was not enough for it to compete with the LP record alone. The 8-track came to dominate a significant part of the music industry when the first commercial in-home 8-track players were developed7. It was only then that people acknowledged that the 8-track had commercial viability, and presented a serious threat to the LP record. “By the end of 1967, an estimated 2.4 million 8-track players were in use.”8 The 8-track as a system, however, was far from perfect. Some of these problems stemmed from the fact that the music industry standard was the LP record. One example of this is the fact that music recording technology and albums had been specialized for the LP. As a result of this, prerecorded 8-track tapes were difficult to make. Songs in albums would sometimes end up in the wrong order, or be incorrectly edited together. “The 8-track suffered from some of the same drawbacks as the 4-track Stereo-Pak did: it was not possible to fast-forward nor rewind to specific points on the tape; the moving heads eventually went out of alignment causing “crosstalk”, or adjacent tracks playing concurrently; and the tape used by Lear was inferior.”9 However, despite these drawbacks, the 8-track would eventually go on to replace the LP record as the industry standard.
The Cassette Tape
The final form of magnetic tape recording to compete against the LP record in the 1960s was the cassette tape. Cassettes would eventually become the industry standard. The cassette was originally released by Philips under the Norelco brand name. The cassette tape marked several improvements over the 8-track in terms of usability. They were the most durable form of recording out there. One could easily rewind cassettes. They were very reliable. They also had the longest playing time out there. One could listen to 30 minutes of sound on a cassette.10 However, they also suffered from many of the problems present in other forms of magnetic tape recording. The most important of these was that cassettes simply did not have high enough fidelity to produce decent quality sound.11 This was not a problem at first, as the original intended use of the cassette was to make audio recordings, and not to sell prerecorded music. Because of this fact, it took major improvements in cassette tape to have them match the quality present in the LP record. Cassette tapes would not outsell LP records until the 1980s.12
45 RPM Single
The second, and final, category of alternatives to the LP record is other vinyl formats that were present at the time. The major example of this is the 45 RPM single. The 45 rpm single was the vinyl format released in order to compete with the LP record. The format was released by RCA Victor in 1949.13 This format had several advantages over the LP record. The 45 rpm single was significantly smaller than the LP record, at about 7 inches. The 45 single was also intended to fill the gap in the market that had been formed when the 78 rpm had stopped manufacturing. The 45 could hold only about 5 minutes of music, making it a poor substitute for the LP when it came to recording whole albums.14 It would often take multiple records to play a whole album. Not only that, but it would sometimes require frequent side changes in order to play a whole song, causing gaps in the music. These facts made the 45 a non-competitor when it came to the album market.15 However, because of the fact that they were targeted at different markets, the 45 single made a significant mark on the market for single music.
1Steven Schoenherr, “The History of Magnetic Recording,” http://www.aes.org/aeshc/docs/recording.technology.history/magnetic4.html , University of San Diego, 2002 (accessed March, 25, 2013).
2 Andrew D. Crews “From Poulsen to Plastic: A Survey of Recordable Magnetic Media,” https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~cochinea/html-paper/a-crews-03-magnetic-media.html, University of Texas, 2003 (accessed March, 25, 2013).
3Thom Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture, pg. 125, Routledge, 1985.
4Andrew D. Crews “From Poulsen to Plastic: A Survey of Recordable Magnetic Media,” https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~cochinea/html-paper/a-crews-03-magnetic-media.html, University of Texas, 2003 (accessed March, 25, 2013).
7Andrew D. Crews “From Poulsen to Plastic: A Survey of Recordable Magnetic Media,” https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~cochinea/html-paper/a-crews-03-magnetic-media.html, University of Texas, 2003 (accessed March, 25, 2013).
13Mark Lanster, 45 RPM, pg. 7, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
14Mark Lanster, 45 RPM, pg. 10, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
15Mark Lanster, 45 RPM, pg. 10, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.