The Sony Walkman Turned 40
Jul 10, 2019   •   Matthew Arcilla
8List.ph is published by ID8, Inc.
Jul 10, 2019   •   Matthew Arcilla
“Portable culture is crucial to a society in motion.” That’s what comic book scribe Warren Ellis said when speaking of the pocket novels, manga and podcasts that defined commuter culture in Japan. So it’s no surprise that the very same culture bestowed upon us the Walkman. If you’re anywhere over the age of 30 then you probably have, at the very least, a dim recollection of the Walkman name.
Before the iPod (or even the NOMAD or Zune) or smartphones with built-in music players, there was the Walkman. The Sony TPS-L2 debuted on the market a whole four decades ago, introducing the world to portable music played from cassette tapes that were 10 centimeters big. It didn’t take long for the player to achieve worldwide success and change the way people enjoyed music.
As technology and media evolved, the Walkman paved the way for CD players like the Discman and even the MiniDisc Walkman. And while none of Sony’s succeeding audio players ever came close to capturing the success of their line of portable cassette players, the word “Walkman” became synonymous with personal stereo and portable music for a whole generation.
Image source: Mental Floss
Though Masaru Ibuka stepped down as chairman from Sony, he continued to serve as an advisor. One of his suggestions was a portable device that would let him to listen to opera during flights. The GM of the tape recorder division, Kozo Ohsone, adapted one of their signature products – a portable recorder used by journalists called the Pressman by replacing the recorder with a stereo amplifier.
Image source: Mike Giepert for SONY
When the first Walkman prototype was developed, Sony was reeling from a huge setback with the failure of their Betamax technology. Although Betamax was popular with film production companies, VHS tape appealed directly to consumers by storing double the information at a lower price. JVC made savvy licensing agreements with various electronics companies while Betamax lost the market.
When Akio Morita, who took over from Ibuka as chairman, received his Walkman prototype, he used it while golfing and was impressed enough by the sound and pushed it into production for consumer release. Morita believed the novelty and quality of the device could redeem Sony.
Image source: Flickr
It’s difficult to imagine a name any less iconic than “Walkman” but several names were considered outside of Japan. It was known as the “Soundabout” in America, the “Stowaway” in the UK and the “Freestyle” in Sweden. At one point “Sony Disco Jogger” was considered, but someone had the sense to throw that name in the garbage, and decided that the Japanese name was the best.
Image source: Todd Steele
Morita wanted the Walkman to be marketed to teenagers. Teens lugged radios and boomboxes around, so he knew a desire for portable music was there. Despite the cost of the tech, Sony gave the Walkman a teen-friendly price, produced stylish earmuff-like headphones and produced ad campaigns that emphasized youth and sportiness.
Image source: ClubTone.Net
When the Walkman was first released, recorded music sales were about $4 billion in the United States. Half of that money went to vinyl, about a quarter to compact cassettes and another quarter to 8-track tapes (go ask your grandparents what 8-track is). Three years later, cassettes overtook vinyl. The portability and versatility of the cassette format made it a go-to music format.
Image source: Studio Khara
Like any new piece of entertainment technology, the Walkman also ushered in a wave of social critique and punditry that expressed concern over its transformative effects on popular lifestyle. Japanese professor Shuhei Hosokawa coined the term “The Walkman Effect,” which was the title of his 1984 article for the journal Popular Music.
Hosokawa accused the portable audio player of altering the urban landscape, transforming it from one were experiences were shared and spontaneous into one where individuals were preoccupied and autonomous in thought and mood, isolating them from the world around them. One could only imagine the screeching Hosokawa would have made over iPods, smartphones, and handheld gaming consoles.
Image source: Timeline
The Walkman’s popularity coincided with a generation of middle class workers that got into a real exercise mania to compensate for their sedentary white collar jobs. Gym memberships and fitness classes were all the rage and almost immediately it became common to see people use dem tunes to accompany the repetitions of their workout routines.
“Appropriate personalized music eases the boredom and pain of repetitive exercise,” wrote Richard Burgess in The History of Music Production. Between 1987 and 1997, the number of people who reported walking for exercise increased by 30 percent. Would disco jogging have gone up had they listened to their music on the Sony Disco Jogman? Probably not.
Image source: The Verge
Alas not all products can remain popular forever. Just like pagers, flip phones and answering machines, the Walkman was superseded by other technologies like optical media, MP3s and multimedia players. Sony continued to make Walkmans until 2010 and now uses the name for some of its MP3 players and cellphones. But forever the Walkman will be remembered for a culture built on cassette.
What were your fondest memories of the Walkman? Tell us about them below!
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