Forty Years of the Sony Walkman
IN THIS ILLUSTRATION: The Sony Walkman TPS-L2 was the world's first low-cost portable stereo and went on sale for the first time on 1st July, 1979/ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Moritz Adam Schmitt
1st July, 1979: An Historic and Iconic Day for Music
I was not alive when the Sony Walkman was invented…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Sony Walkman WM-101 was the first device to come with rechargeable batteries/PHOTO CREDIT: Sony/Getty Images
but it definitely made an impact in my childhood years. I remember getting hold of a Walkman around the age of about seven or eight and being liberated. Able to transport my favourite cassettes around and listen to music on the go…this was something that my generation were experiencing and it was a major breakthrough. One might feel it is a bit over-the-top to call the invention of the Sony Walkman an historic moment. Look at the devices and technology that has brought music forward and revolutionised how we listen to music. Think of when the gramophone came in and how that allowed records to be played. Back in 1979, people could listen to cassettes on the move but, for the most part, they had to rely on slightly cumbersome and clunky players and boom-boxes. It was quite social having a cassette player or boom-box; one could bring it out into the open and people could share their prized artists. Thinking about it and it didn’t allow for much subtlety and privacy. On 1st July, 1979, Sony introduced the portable and awesome Walkman – a device that would eventually evolve into the Discman (a rare case of taking a huge step back when it came to technology). Before I tell you why me and a lot of people my age love the Walkman, let’s get some historical perspective. This Time article charts the beginnings of the Sony Walkman:
“The Walkman wasn't a giant leap forward in engineering: magnetic cassette technology had been around since 1963, when the Netherlands-based electronics firm Philips first created it for use by secretaries and journalists. Sony, who by that point had become experts in bringing well-designed, miniaturized electronics to market (they debuted their first transistor radio in 1955), made a series of moderately successful portable cassette recorders.
But the introduction of pre-recorded music tapes in the late 1960s opened a whole new market. People still chose to listen to vinyl records over cassettes at home, but the compact size of tapes made them more conducive to car stereos and mobility than vinyl or 8-tracks. On July 1, 1979, Sony Corp. introduced the Sony Walkman TPS-L2, a 14 ounce, blue-and-silver, portable cassette player with chunky buttons, headphones and a leather case. It even had a second earphone jack so that two people could listen in at once.
All the device needed now was a name. Originally the Walkman was introduced in the U.S. as the "Sound-About" and in the UK as the "Stowaway," but coming up with new, uncopyrighted names in every country it was marketed in proved costly; Sony eventually decided on "Walkman" as a play on the Sony Pressman, a mono cassette recorder the first Walkman prototype was based on. First released in Japan, it was a massive hit: while Sony predicted it would only sell about 5,000 units a month, the Walkman sold upwards of 50,000 in the first two months. Sony wasn't the first company to introduce portable audio: the first-ever portable transistor radio, the index card-sized Regency TR-1, debuted in 1954. But the Walkman's unprecedented combination of portability (it ran on two AA batteries) and privacy (it featured a headphone jack but no external speaker) made it the ideal product for thousands of consumers looking for a compact portable stereo that they could take with them anywhere. The TPS-L2 was introduced in the U.S. in June 1980”.
Although the Walkman was a revolutionary and welcomed introduction, it was quite a pricey option for music-lovers back in 1979 – can one put a price on its importance?! This feature from The Verge shows how the humble Walkman grew in stature; how it is hugely important to his very day:
“The first of Sony's iconic portable cassette tape players went on sale on this day, July 1st, back in 1979 for $150. As the story goes, Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka got the wheels turning months before when he asked for a way to listen to opera that was more portable than Sony's existing TC-D5 cassette players. The charge fell to Sony designer Norio Ohga, who built a prototype out of Sony's Pressman cassette recorder in time for Ibuka's next flight.
After a disappointing first month of sales, the Walkman went on to become one of Sony's most successful brands of all time, transitioning formats over the years into CD, Mini-Disc, MP3 and finally, streaming music. Over 400 million Walkman portable music players have been sold, 200 million of them cassette players. Sony retired the classic cassette tape Walkman line in 2010, and was forced to pay a huge settlement to the original inventor of the portable cassette player, Andreas Pavel. But the name lives on today in the form of new MP3 players and Sony's Walkman app. They heyday of the Walkman may be over, with kids today baffled and disgusted by the relative clumsiness of cassettes. But the habit it spawned — listening to music wherever and whenever you want — is bigger than ever”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Sony’s first Discman was released in 1984/PHOTO CREDIT: Sony/Getty Images
I will end by looking at how the Walkman has dwindled since its introduction but, in an age where we carry everything on our phone, it is sad that we do not have this groundbreaking piece of kit on our person! I recall my parents talking about the introduction of the Walkman and how it was this desirable object that eventually made its way to our shores – it is a Japanese invention and, as I shall show later, the fact it slowly crept around the world made it all the more desirable! My earliest music-listening days (around about 1987-1990-ish) were spent, largely, listening to a bigger unit where I had a double tape deck. It was pretty cool having that and it allowed me to listen to tape out of the house. I have a huge fondness for vinyl but I often find a record player does not allow the portability we crave. Early cassette players and devices were a bit large but it did mean me and my mates could take cassettes out of our homes and share them with one another. We could sit on the grass and marvel at these great albums, played loud, without having to worry about our parents’ (dis)approval. I cannot recall the day I got a Walkman but the effect was instant: the ability to listen to music privately whilst on the move. One might say that the Walkman made music-listening more insular and less communal but, from the earliest days of music, there has always been that desire to listen to music peacefully and in a very personal way.
ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Sam Cooke
I think there is something magical about sharing music and listening with peers but, for that sheer release and affirmative rush, listening to music without interruption and expectation is hard to beat! Now, as I type this, I have headphones on am listening to Beyoncé’s Homecoming album. If I was listening to the album with a group of people, we could all react and it would be cool seeing how people respond to the music. I feel, with the music in my ears (and only mine) it is more intimate and personal – like Beyoncé is performing directly to me. Music is at its strongest when it has that direct touch and power to move you. I am not saying the earliest days, pre-Walkman, were not good but there was something about the Walkman that took music to a new level! I had a large collection of cassettes and, before, I had to play them in my room and it didn’t allow for much movement and personal space. When I got my first Walkman – maybe the early-1990s, now that I think of it – I was able to walk around and, not only did I get to listen to all my tunes with smoothness and peace, but I was actually getting active at the same time! The portability and sleekness of the Walkman, as Mental Floss explained in this feature, was marketed at a younger audience:
“The teen angle also meant that Sony had to produce new, more stylish and lightweight headphones, improving on the earmuff-like ones available at the time.
The initial ad campaigns emphasized youth and sportiness: young people on roller skates and bicycles, earphones on their ears and Walkmans on their belts. One advertisement said it all: a young, pretty girl with a Walkman wearing futuristic earphones walking past an elderly monk wearing a clunky, old ’60s-style headset”.
As I said early, the Walkman was reserved to Japan for a long time. It took a while for it to make its way to international markets:
“Two months after the July 1 rollout, Sony sold out of the initial production in Japan. The company intended to introduce the Walkman to foreign markets in September 1979, but scrapped that plan in order to dedicate production to meet Japanese demand. This only made the Walkman more desired in other countries. Tourists and airline crews searched them out and brought them home. Whenever Sony executives went abroad, colleagues badgered them about obtaining Walkmans.
In 1979, the year of the Walkman’s release in Japan, recorded music sales were about $4 billion in the U.S., half of which went to vinyl, a quarter to compact cassettes, and a quarter to 8-tracks, according to Mark Coleman's book Playback. The Walkman made its U.S. debut in June 1980, and just three years later, in 1983, cassettes overtook vinyl as the top format. By the time Sony stopped manufacturing the Walkman portable cassette players in 2010, the company had sold around 385 million units”.
Was the Walkman, at a time when music was sociable and shared, taking us more into private and closed-off territory?
“In an essay that may seem either quaint or prophetic in the age of smartphones, Japanese professor Shuhei Hosokawa accused the Walkman of altering the urban landscape, from one in which experiences were shared and spontaneous into one where individuals were preoccupied and autonomous in thought and mood. In a 1984 article for the journal Popular Music, entitled "The Walkman Effect," Hosokawa, of the inter-university International Research Center for Japanese Studies, wrote that the “listener seems to cut the auditory contact with the outer world where he really lives: seeking the perfection of his ‘individual’ zone of listening.”
IN THIS PHOTO: The invention of the Walkman has, indirectly, led to the portability and convenience of the Smartphone/PHOTO CREDIT: @jens_johnsson
I have mentioned how, if the Walkman made music more personal and less sociable, it did encourage people to move and, with music in their ears, the health benefits were clear:
“The Walkman coincided with the exercise craze of the ’80s, which saw the Western middle class, newly confined to office jobs, take to the gym and fitness classes. “[A]lmost immediately, it became common to see people exercising with the new device,” Richard James Burgess wrote in The History of Music Production. “Appropriate personalized music eases the boredom and pain of repetitive exercise.”
I think there has not been another move in music technology since 1979 that has changed how we listen and experienced sounds. One can say Smartphones have transformed things but, look at what was before the Walkman, and you have to admit that (the 1979 invention) was a seismic shift. We all know what sort of went wrong when it came to following the incredible Walkman: making C.D. listening portable was fraught with challenges. This AdWeek article discusses the ways Sony tried to make other forms of music mobile but, as anyone who has owned a Discman will tell you, there were more problems than benefits:
“Groundbreaking as it was, however, the Walkman would also become one of branding's cautionary tales. Sony initially kept apace with the changes in technology, introducing its CD-playing Discman D-20 in 1987. But when the era of MP3 arrived, Sony wasn't hip to the groove. The MP3 Walkman arrived in 2004, but its high price ($400) and Sony's insistence on using its Atrac MiniDisc format alienated many consumers—who were all too happy to defect to Apple's iPod after it hit the market in 2001. "Sony was not defending its space as it should have been," Reed said. "One of the brilliant things that Apple did—and that Sony had done—was to create a category."
IN THIS PHOTO: This is what the Walkman looks like today: the modern-day and slimline NW-ZK1/PHOTO CREDIT: Sony/Getty Images
I am not down on the Discman at all: it meant we could all listen to C.D.s on the move but, as C.D.s are more fragile than cassettes, it meant harnessing a device that could play them smoothly was always going to be a challenge. Now, we look back and laugh at how one used to hold a Discman: usually in the air, making sure tracks did not skip; perhaps walking very gingerly as not to irritate the mechanisms and get that horrible skipping sensation. Walkmans, in a way, were way ahead of Discmans and much more inviting. There was always the dilemma one would have when the cassette would sound a bit off – normally one would have to unspool the tape because the bloody thing was stuck and beyond saving! This article charts where Sony went from the Discman. By 1992, Sony brought out its first HD Walkman - Sony created the world’s first MiniDisc Walkman® MZ-1 that featured recording, playback; a numeric keyboard and anti-skip technology. This device could record for up to seventy-four minutes, and those recordings could be divided, combined; deleted and named (all new experiences to tape recording!). From there, as newer technology came out, the Walkman changed its shape and appearance. I do wonder whether the so-called ‘Walkman Effect’ is responsible for this big modern-day issue of people on their phones; nobody looking up and everyone keeping to themselves.
If one can argue the Walkman encouraged technology companies to pioneer music/devices that were more private and personal than social and communicative, they (Sony) at least made portable music-listening possible. They made it possible for us to listen to music on our own and not have to be anchored and constricted by overly-large cassette players and worry about volume! Is the Walkman due a revival? As this feature explains, the Walkman had a brief resurgence a few years back:
“They have since licensed the name to Chinese manufacturers and used it themselves for MP3 players and even phones, but the original Walkman had become a thing of the past...or had it? In 2014 the Walkman was revived thanks to the release of the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy in which the main character uses his Walkman and mix tapes as a lifeline to his childhood on Earth. After the release of the movie, the price of second-hand walkmans increased dramatically thanks to this retro reboot”.
As our modern world keeps vinyl alive and there is never going to be an end to our love of record shops, does that mean there is a space for cassettes? Definitely, there are disadvantages with cassettes: you cannot easily skip tracks and you have to wind forward/backward; it is a rather frustrating experience unless you want to listen to an album in one go.
I do think cassettes – if we get rid of the plastic – could make a comeback and inspire the next generation. A lot of D.I.Y. labels and artists still put out cassettes and there is no danger of them disappearing. Maybe it is hard to revive the format and get it to where it once was. At a time when so many of us listen to music on our phones and have the freedom to listen where and when we like, I feel we ignore what started it all: the incredible and life-changing Walkman. It started out in Japan in 1979 but it would find its way around the world. Many felt its popularity would not be that great; considering there was no record function and there were some limitations it was a raging success and a hugely important time for music. To be alive on 1st July, 1979 and hear news of this strange and near-space-age device coming into the world! Forty years on and the Sony Walkman remains iconic and progressive. It definitely changed how we listened to music and meant that people could hear their favourite artists in a whole different way. When the official fortieth anniversary comes, I think it is a perfect excuse to get your hands on a Walkman – you might need to do some research first – and understand why it is such an important invention. Maybe digital has taken over and the cassette is facing extinction in years to come. I would hate to accept that because people like me grew up around cassettes and they were a vital part of childhood. When I think about the Walkman and how it changed my life, it makes me smile a lot. That is a memory/sensation that…
IMAGE CREDIT: Sony/Getty Images
CAN never be taken away.