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How Sony’s Walkman Changed the Way We Listen to Music
29 Jul 2019

How Sony’s Walkman Changed the Way We Listen to Music

The herald of the mobile music age stumbles toward its 40th anniversary

By Michael Jarema, contributing writer

In one or two clicks, I can range across a century of recorded sounds, changing sex, race, nationality, language, and vocal and ethical registers at a whim. When Vanni Marcoux sings "Madamina," from Don Giovanni, I'm the greatest Mozart singer ever. When Fred Astaire sings "The Way You Look Tonight," I can dance exquisitely down staircases...What is a ‘favorite song’ after all, if not an extraordinarily fetishized fantasy world, an auditory objective correlative for private, otherwise inarticulate or unmentionable aspirations?

Writer Terry Castle penned the above in an article for the Summer, 2004, issue of American Scholar1 celebrating a beloved personal audio device. It was one of many articles that ran in the national press at the time revering the technology that transformed the act of listening to music into a personal, customizable and portable experience.

Castle and others were writing about the iPod, but another device had already monumentally changed the way we listen to music a full 25 years earlier: the Walkman.

The debut of the Walkman

Sony’s Walkman debuted in Japan in July of 1979. With a part number of TPS-L2, it sported a blue and silver metal case, was as big as a book, weighed 14 ounces, and played only cassette tapes.

Developed from the Sony Pressman – a portable tape recorder/player Sony marketed to reporters – the Walkman significantly featured no recording capability. It was intended for playback only and came with a pair of high-quality stereo earphones for the task. Initially on sale only in Japan, the price was around 39,500 yen, or about $150 U.S. ($530 today, adjusted for inflation).

And it was a hit. Sony’s sales projections were 5,000 units per month. They sold 50,000 in the first two months.

Sony didn’t market the Walkman internationally right away, and the device wasn’t available in the U.S. for almost a year after its Japanese debut. Here, due to marketers’ objections to its pseudo-Anglicized name, it was sold under several labels, including the Soundabout. In other countries, it was the Freestyle or Stowaway. Eventually though, “Walkman” caught on and Sony used the name exclusively throughout the world, with the term eventually used generically for all personal stereos, regardless of brand.

The reason for its success was simple: it allowed users to play what they wanted, when they wanted, without commercials, and – most significantly – to play it wherever they wanted to.

Ironically, for a tech gadget, the technology involved was not revolutionary. As Eric Alder noted in a 1999 Edmonton Journal article2 commemorating the device’s 20th anniversary: “Portable transistor radios with little earpieces had been around for decades. And home stereophiles wishing to listen to their favourite tapes or albums in solitude always had their headphones. The brilliance behind the Walkman was in melding the technologies.”

The revolutionary impetus behind the Walkman was Sony’s co-founder Masuru Ibuka’s desire to have his favorite music readily accessible as he traveled. To make the experience of listening to music mobile, to bring it into a public environment while simultaneously maintaining it as a solitary experience – that was the transformative idea behind the Walkman.

Alder made the point that Sony designers were so skeptical of the public’s desire for this personal experience that the initial TPS-L2 Walkman model came with a second headphone jack and pair of earphones so two listeners could listen at once. They could even talk to each other through a built-in microphone, with the device automatically lowering the music volume during conversation.

The industry consensus? Alder quoted Tracy Farrington, then the Walkman’s marketing manager: "The industry considered it a ludicrous idea," Farrington said.

But they were wrong. At the time of Alder’s article, Sony had sold over 100 million Walkman devices, with over 1,200 different models produced. By 1983 – just 4 years after the Walkman’s release – sales of cassette tapes surpassed those of vinyl records. It was the first time that had ever happened.

Walkman devices were eventually developed that could play Compact Discs (the Discman), MiniDiscs, or digital audiotape. Others included AM/FM tuners and had recording capability. The price of the cheapest models was under $25.

Of the Walkman’s ubiquitous nature, Alder concluded:

Today the name Walkman is as synonymous with portable music as Kleenex is with facial tissues, Jell-O is with wiggly gelatin and Coke is with soda pop. In 1987, the first Walkman was permanently installed in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. The term Walkman is even listed in the Oxford English Dictionary… Today it is just a part of our culture as we know it.

The rise of “electronic narcissism”

The skepticism around the Walkman wasn’t just limited to the electronics industry. Others were also taking note of its profound societal influence. Shing-ling Chen, in a 1998 research paper for Qualitative Sociology3 analyzed the journal entries of 40 college students regarding their experiences with a Walkman, ultimately concluding that Walkman use is a form of “electronic narcissism.”

Chen lead his paper off with an excerpt from one of his subject’s journals.

I have just come back from running errands on campus and listening to my Walkman. As I listened to my Walkman this time, I moved and sang with it. There was hardly anyone walking around campus so I decided to feel the music!! I probably looked stupid to others, but they didn't understand, to me the whole world is rockin'!
– Dan, a college junior

What’s remarkable about the scene Dan describes is that today it’s so unremarkable. It’s a common sight in public settings every day – on streets, in coffee shops and gyms, on buses and trains, in the workplace.

Despite the prevalence, Chen took exception. The scholar wrote, “Walkman listening, by impairing the hearing of outside sources of sound and by enveloping one in a surrounding filled with rhythm and melody, can totally cut the listener off from the external environment. This private act presumes the prevention of intrusion from others.”

This cutting off from the external environment that lead Chen to equate Walkman use with narcissism:

Freud (1914) maintained that narcissism involves a withdrawal of instinctual energy from external objects and an investment of libido in the ego. This investment in the ego implies that the person is unable to love or relate with others and is self-absorbed...As a consequence, such a person is indifferent to all that is outside herself, since all the energy and attention is focused on the self...Informed by the discussion of Freud, narcissism can be understood as a state of self-absorption in which the individual withdraws from the external environment, disengages from social activities, and is indifferent to others.

Chen ultimately concluded though that this brand of narcissism – “electronic narcissism,” as he called it – isn’t of the same pathological nature as that which Freud described. He even postulated that – the ugly connotations of narcissism aside – there are compelling benefits to the Walkman experience.

“The sensations evoked by the use of the Walkman are an enrichment of the experience of the self rather than a disease,” Chen wrote. “Walkman listening contributes to individual control over her experience, behavior, and social relationship, rather than inhibits her from performing her objectives.”

As a result, he concluded, “The pathological nature of the uncontrolled behavior is thus removed from the electronic narcissism.”

The fall from grace

The iPod debuted in October of 2001, about eight months after Apple released the Mac version of iTunes. The portable music player was a direct competitor to the Walkman, playing files in the then-relatively new .mp3 format – a file codec that provided small files sizes with acceptable audio quality. It caught on, quickly becoming the industry standard.

But Sony initially refused to support .mp3s because of the files’ ability to be easily copied. With corporate interests in the entertainment industry, Sony was concerned with piracy of its music, film and television properties. iTunes was the other half of the iPod revolution. It made downloading and sharing music between devices easy.

In a 2006 BBC television interview4 with Sony’s then-CEO Sir Howard Stringer, interviewer Lesley Stahl flashed an iPod at Stringer, goading him with “Ooh, ooh. It hurts.” Stringer agreed with a resigned, “Yeah,” as Stahl pressed on. “The is the symbol, a major symbol of where Sony went off the tracks. What happened?” she asked. And Stringer admitted that (Apple CEO) “Steve Jobs was smarter than we are at software.”

Stahl summarized their conversation:

Stringer says Steve Jobs came up with the iPod and iTunes, a simple system for people to download music while Sony worried about its record company, (and) wasted precious time trying to figure out how to keep people from stealing songs...Well of course Apple didn't have a music company to worry about, Sony had a music company.

Within eight years of its debut, as Sony celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Walkman, Apple had sold 210 million iPods – more than half the number of Walkmans it took Sony 30 years to sell.

The iPod had done to the Walkman what the Walkman had done to record players, but one can’t deny how much the cultural transformation inspired by the Walkman paved the way for revolutionary technology of its successor.

Notes:

  1. Castle, T. (2004, Summer). iPod, Therefore, I Am. The American Scholar. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
  2. Alder, E. (1999, Oct). Walkman is Still Music to our Ears - After 20 Years. Edmonton Journal. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
  3. Chen, S. (1998, Sep). Electronic Narcissism: College Students' Experiences of Walkman Listening. Qualitative Sociology. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
  4. Rome, H. (producer). (2006, Jan 6). Sir Howard (Howard Stringer). 60 Minutes. Available from ProQuest One Academic.

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Michael Jarema is an Ypsilanti, Michigan-based writer, filmmaker, sometime-foodie, and full-time craft beer enthusiast. He regularly incorporates the latter when working on his current pet writing project – a graphic novel titled, I Kill Nazis with Dinosaurs.

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