We live in an age where we take listening to music for granted, any device we have on hand could play music wherever we are, whenever we want. The thing is, not many people of today know how big an innovation it was to have a portable and personal music device. And it all started with the Sony Walkman, which was released 40 years ago.
The Roaring Past
Before this, music was something that people heard together. From concerts, to the radio, record players and boomboxes, if you wanted to listen to some tunes, you better believe that everyone else would be listening with you. Headphones were invented as early as 1910, but it only took until 1958 for it to be applied in musical applications. Prior to that, headphones were mainly used by military personnel and radio operators.
Another thing with listening to music was that it was not portable. Record players were centrepieces of a living room, and even portable radios back then had you blasting music to the world. Not the ideal way to listen to your favourite tunes on the go. Cassette tapes were in fact, invented in the 60s, and became the ideal way to listen to albums and singles in cars. Though vinyl was still the way to go when listening to songs when you were at home.
A Walk To Remember
Legend has it, Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka was an avid music fan, and being the entrepreneur he is, he would be travelling around the world all the time. What he would do was use the company’s portable tape recorders to record the music he would want to listen to, and play it back when he was travelling. After coming back from one of these trips that he would task his deputy, Norio Ohga, to start experimenting on a device that can cater to his needs.
After some experimentation and some trial and error, the world’s first portable stereo playback cassette player, the Walkman, was born. At first, there was some doubt in the company, with many of them asking why anybody would want a cassette device that only offered playback and not recording? Ibuka promptly and simply replied: ”Don’t you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?”
Released on the 1st of July 1979, the TPS-L2 Walkman became the world’s first portable music device. The first few months of its release didn’t sell too well, but soon consumers saw what the Walkman is all about and it immediately became a huge hit. This first model of the Walkman had proved to be the most iconic, bolstered more recently by Marvel superhero, Star-Lord, who used this model in the first Guardians Of The Galaxy film.
From there, it was all uphill for the Walkman; with the Walkman II being released in 1981. The Walkman II was lighter and had better sound quality. Soon after in 1983, the WM-20 model was released, with the actual device being as big as the cassette case itself. This elevated the Walkman to be a must-have device for everyone in the 80s. Whether you were a high-school student listening to the latest pop-hits between classes, an executive listening to Guns & Roses on commutes to work, or a retiree listening to remastered classics while jogging around the park, the Walkman was fun for everyone.
It also defined the cassette as being the definitive way to release and listen to music in the 80s, phasing out vinyls and paving the way for it to become the niche and collectable music format that it is today. For the first time in history, cassettes outsold vinyl and continued to do so until the introduction of CDs.
Of course, the Walkman innovated with the times and introduced the CD Walkman, also known as the Discman. While it was originally released in 1984, the CD Walkman really hit its stride when CDs became the preferred music format of the 90s. So even though it was a whole new decade, the Walkman was still culturally relevant for its first 20 years.
The Walkman’s Cultural Footprint
Sadly, the Walkman did not maintain its cultural relevance in the 2000s with CDs becoming less of a commonplace and with Apple’s introduction of the iPod in 2001. Dubbed the “Walkman Of The 21st Century”, the iPod forgoes physical musical formats and opted for digital media storage. This soon became the norm for all portable devices, with Sony even updating their Walkman line to also offer digital media, though it didn’t hit the highs the earlier Walkmans had in the 80s and 90s. To put it simply, Sony walked, so Apple could run. Without the success of the Walkman and iPod, the iPhone and smartphones at large would not have been made today.
Another lesser-known fact of the Walkman is that there is a scientific phenomenon named after it; the Walkman effect, which refers to “ the way music listened to via headphones allows the user to gain more control over their environment.” If you’ve ever made your day better by just listening to your favourite tunes on the way to work, then you have just experienced the Walkman effect. If you’ve ever worked out in the gym, listening to a great workout playlist, lowering the volume at times to talk to a fellow gym member, and generally having a great time, then you’ve just experienced the Walkman effect.
Having the power and freedom to control your experience of space and time, giving your life its very own soundtrack, living in the world while being lost in your music, this was what the Walkman brought to the world, and us living in 2019 are still experiencing the Walkman effect everyday of our lives. It may not be the device it was 40 years ago, but one can not deny the massive impact it has on the world; from the way music is created and distributed, the creation of all new devices like the iPod and iPhone, the world is a better place today thanks to the Sony Walkman.