PlayTape: 1967 - 1969

PlayTapes were common in the late 1960's, being one of the first truly portable formats. Over 3,000 artists recorded these 2-track PlayTape cartridges, including The Beatles and The Grateful Dead, along with the entire Motown catalog. With the upsurge of the 8-Track, PlayTapes were obsolete by 1970. However, PlayTape represented a major step in the pre-recorded music industry and is a joy and challenge to collectors of many sorts.

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by Lynn Fuller

"In early 1967 the four-track cartridge was controlling the industry with Bill Lear and his 8-track format waiting in the wings to become the 'format of choice' for the next decade of pre-recorded taped music.

"Enter Frank Stanton, innovator of the 2-track PlayTape system. Stanton conceived the compact 2-track system in the 1940's war years, when he served in the Navy. Sears and MGM records bought the first working model.

"The machine was unveiled to the general public at an MGM Records distributor meeting in New York in mid- 1966. It was almost instantly a success. PlayTape was touted as a replacement to the transistor radio with the disc jockey removed. It was a light little machine, playing whatever music you wanted to hear . The self- winding tapes played from eight to 24 minutes, and they played anywhere. Quite an accomplishment in 1967!

"Stanton felt that Playtape was a 'standard system- not competitive with anybody. We have our own niche -- from $1.00 - $3.00 retail cartridges, from mono to stereo, from the Beatles and Sinatra to Shakespeare and poetry.' He would be proven wrong.

"The first two PlayTape units offered were a $19.95 unit sold by Sears exclusively, and an MGM model (retailing at $29.95) that had tone controls and a better speaker. Stanton had in mind over 15 different models to be available in 1967 -- home tabletop models featuring hi- fi speakers, an auto hang-on unit, a wide variety of portable units and special stereo models.

"Units were cheaply made, sounded like you would expect a 3" speaker to sound and were troubled with the same crosstalk, azimuth problems of the 8-track.

"In addition to musical entertainment, Stanton had the business market in mind for the PlayTape system as well. He introduced a special dictating device for the business market which he envisioned as a replacement for written memos and letters. His idea was marketed to the Smith Corona Corporation and called the Mail Call Letter Pack.

"The units that recorded the messages were advertised at 'less than $70.00 a pair.' Letter Pack cartridges were offered in 3, 6, or 10 minute lengths and were reusable. Even though the idea was a forerunner of the IBM dictating machine and to some extent the Internet and E-mail, the concept did not take off and music is still the medium for which PlayTape is remembered.

"In September of 1967, PlayTapes were distributed in five distinctive color cartridges in the following categories:

"Red cartridge = equivalent to the 45 r.p.m. "single" -- $1.00

"Black cartridge = equivalent to a 4-song EP -- $1.49

"Blue cartridge = children's albums -- $1.00-$1.50

"White cartridge = 8 songs like an LP -- $2.98

"Gray cartridge = talk and educational -- $1.00-$1.50

"In its heyday of 1967 and 1968, the personalities in the PlayTape inventory reads like a 'Who's Who' in the entertainment world. In the popular music category were such greats as Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Connie Stevens, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Wayne Newton, Judy Garland, Nancy Wilson, Petula Clark, Connie Francis, Ella Fitzgerald, Edie Gorme, Steve Lawrence and hundreds of others.

"The rock n roll category includes such names as the Beatles, the Animals, the Supremes, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and Papas, the Righteous Brothers, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.

"Also in the PlayTape inventory were the standards -- Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes and an assortment of current Country music hit artists. The total number of artists available on PlayTape at the beginning of 1968 was over 3,000!

"A big boost to the PlayTape format was a contract in April of 1967 to license the entire Motown catalog. Previously, Motown had only once licensed their entire catalog -- to Ampex in the open-reel format. Another boost was a contract with Pepsi to promote the youth market. Pepsi offered a PlayTape unit for $12.95 plus 6 cork liners from Pepsi cans. Pepsi promotion increased the sale of PlayTape cartridges almost twofold.

"The PlayTape format targeted two distinct markets -- the youth music market and the business market. For whatever reasons, the business market never took hold. The music market enjoyed a limited success. The PlayTape was limited to two tracks, and even though there were several car units, they never really targeted the car audio market as did Mr. Muntz and Mr. Lear.

"Both of these factors helped lead to Playtape's of educational and business fields, rather than entertainment. LearJet and Muntz both introduced portable players for their formats in the late 1960's, which stripped PlayTape of its unique portability selling point. Consumers had to commit to a uniform format, and PlayTape was not to be the choice.

"PlayTape did however enjoy several more years in the limelight in Europe, most notably Germany.

"Collectors of the PlayTape format should look for the following:

"PlayTapes are an important part in the history of cartridge tape formats. Although short lived in their existence, PlayTapes offer the collector a challenge in preserving this unique format."

Excerpted from "You Really Got Me,"
copyright 1994 by Doug Hinman and Jason Brabazon

"While this war of hegemony between 4- and 8-track systems was being decided, other formats of prerecorded tape were making their bid. The least remembered of these is the PlayTape format, introduced in 1966 with the backing of MGM Records. Basically miniature 2-track cartridges, PlayTapes could be played only on players marketed by the system's developer, sold primarily at Sears stores for about $20. In contrast to the bulky 4- and 8-track car (and later home) units, which ran on AC current, PlayTape units were lightweight, portable, and battery operated, with speakers not unlike those found in the transistor radios at that time. In this way they prefigured the cassette players and boom boxes (and later Walkmans) that offered their users almost unlimited flexibility in terms of where they could listen to the music of their choice, and which did much to make the cassette format ultimately so popular.

"Nevertheless, this format never really caught on. Its failure (particularly considered in contrast to the success soon afterward of the cassette format) may have been due to the lack of a well-heeled sponsor, such as Norelco/Philips, developer of the cassette format, to suckle it in a milieu already perplexed by the battle between two competing formats, and perhaps because, unlike cassettes, PlayTape's maximum length was under 30 minutes, making it impossible for an entire LP's worth of material to fit onto one of the small cartridges. PlayTapes came in lengths of eight songs (so-called LPs), four songs (EPs), and two songs (singles), with prices diminishing accordingly."

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