Leading Article: New bottles for old wine

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The Independent Online
ANYONE remember the eight-track stereo cartridge? It was an audio tape in a bulky box, four times the size of a cassette, which allowed the listener to jump backwards and forwards between eight different songs. For a while in the early Seventies, the eight-track was the height of fashion; by the end of the decade, it had been consigned to the slag- heap of technological history - only to be seen again, presumably, in the science museums of the 21st century.

This spring, it is nightmares of the eight-track and its gloomy fate that haunt marketing men in the Netherlands and Japan. Philips of Eindhoven and Sony of Tokyo have each staked hundreds of millions of pounds on new music technologies to replace the audio compact cassette. The CD having already overtaken vinyl, it was the dowdy cassette that seemed ripe for overhaul at the end of the Eighties.

By last year, the question was which would capture consumers' hearts. Would it be Sony's radical idea of a smaller and recordable CD machine, called Mini-Disc? Or Philips's more conventional digital compact cassette (DCC) deck, which could also play standard analogue cassettes? Sony hoped that in return for the ability to find songs at the push of a button, customers would be willing to start a new CD collection from scratch; Philips believed they would at least want to keep playing their old cassettes on the new machines.

As we report in our business pages today, neither is doing well in the UK: managers of some of the biggest music shops in the country can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in a week they sell recorded music for either Mini-Disc or DCC.

To be fair, consumers' lack of confidence may have something to do with these apparently low sales: an untried hi-fi format is not the first way people choose to spend pounds 500 when they fear for their jobs. So, too, may the fact that new musical formats take time to become established; the miserable sales of compact discs in their early years gave no clue to the success that was to come.

But the hesitant start of these two new gadgets may be the first evidence of a trend that is becoming more evident as the decade continues. The mood has already turned against 'product churning', by which companies keep sales high by making frequent changes to their products to make customers throw out the old and buy the new.

Enthusiasts may be asking themselves more critically whether the enjoyment they derive from pounds 500 spent on an addition to the hi-fi brings as much pleasure as the same sum spent on a weekend in the south of France - or even put into a personal pension for future spending.

If this is so, then the electronics industry's quest for new products may prove unproductive. Rather, the trick will be to put more effort into improving the music or video that is played on them. One of the ironies of the CD was that its arrival provoked a sudden burst of enthusiasm for out-of-print recordings, ranging from early Stones back to late Pablo Casals. All that new hardware merely heightens the delight of old