In this trip down memory lane, Jon Chattman looks back on the history of one of the most iconic music players to exist, the Sony Walkman, taking us through the device's development and evolution, thirty years since its creation.
The struggle was real, and we loved it. Let me paint a nostalgic picture of a time before streaming existed, when making a single playlist could take days or sometimes weeks. It was a time when wonderment and frustration came together all at once in the effort to create your own soundtrack to life, and that made it all the more satisfying when the process was finally over.
Making a mixtape was a joyous exercise, but could really mess with your energy and emotions! Case in point: You’d put on the radio, and catch the last verse to your favorite song, and then have to wait an hour for it to come around again so you could add it to your tape — hitting record as soon as you recognized the first few bars. But, what if you missed it again? Yeah, you probably did while you were in the bathroom for three minutes. Back to waiting! I vividly remember the boredom of waiting on many a Debbie Gibson song. In transferring music from tape to tape, there was the excruciating finger aerobics of pressing play on one cassette player and record on the other either, which no one, I’m sure, actually misses.
Over time, we had to learn which radio stations and hosts announced their songs in advance, as opposed to the ones who named them afterwards. We had to learn that during some times of the day, certain songs with certain noticeable attributes were more likely to come on; but that late at night or during primetime hours, it was less predictable. But, this article isn’t about mixtapes. Instead, it’s about what we played our new mixtape on — something from the distant past that brought us instant gratification.
The Walkman was a technological game changer that altered the musical landscape forever by allowing us to bring whatever we wanted to hear, wherever we wanted to hear it. And, it all started on this day, July 1, in 1979, with the Sony Walkman TPS-L2. It was blue and silver with big buttons and flimsy headphones just waiting to break.
Long before Steve Jobs ever uttered the word “iPod,” before “MP3” became a word, and before people even considered dropping $1,000 on a telephone that would hold more music than you could listen to in a year, there was a time when you couldn’t listen to anything “on the go.” Well, you could lug around a stereo boombox if you wanted to, but the only real way to listen to music was to pump it out the windows of your Pontiac Firebird. The Walkman changed all that — just ask any subway rider or graffiti artist from that time, and they’ll tell you.
Yet, subway riders and graffiti artists in 1979 would’ve had to save up or find creative ways to afford one of these, because they cost $200, which adjusted for inflation, would be around $700 today. The average monthly rent for an apartment in 1979 was around $280.
The Walkman is credited as being invented by Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka, although the German inventor, Andreas Pavel, claimed to have developed the technology years prior. (If you really care to learn about it, there was a lengthy lawsuit that ended 25 years after the Walkman hit the market that went in Pavel’s favor, earning him a multimillion dollar payout.) As the story goes, Ibuka loved listening to opera when he traveled by plane using Sony’s huge TC-D5 cassette recorder, and thought it’d be swell if he could listen, I’m guessing, without the unnecessary weight and features. Ibuka set out to bring a simpler product that weighed less than a Kettlebell and cost less than a Ketel One bottle (my words).
So they created the “Walkman,” a name that paid homage to an earlier model, the “Pressman,” but that would appeal to the active nature of their intended target market. Naturally, it sold like hot cakes — almost 50,000 units were sold in Japan in the first two months (the Walkman didn’t make it to US until June of 1980).
As years went by, Sony continued to advance their line of “man” products. There was the Watchman in 1982, which enabled you to watch television shows in fuzzy black and white on a screen the size of Shrek’s toenail, and the Discman in 1984. And they continued to add features to their original breadwinner.
But, we know how this story ends. Just as video killed the radio star, MP3 players killed the Walkman star (even though the brand did actually manage to stay on top of the trend for years, with products such as MiniDisc and lines of Walkman-style MP3 players.) The iPod landed on the shores of Earth in 2001, and eventually the iPhone showed up to finish the job. In 2010, Sony officially stopped manufacturing the Walkman, but its legacy remains intact as the progenitor of the on-the-go audio player. Nowadays, we can stream music everywhere, even on our watches, and we don’t even need to buy it!
Were they perfect? Of course not, but they’re the reason you’re listening to Drake while reading this article on the toilet right now. Were they ugly and kind of annoying? Of course they were. I had a Sony AM/FM waterproof “Sports” model that was the size of Portland, and opening the cassette door was harder than cracking a lobster. Did the headphones break? All the time. But I could fix them with duct tape. Did the headphone wires get tangled? All the time. But, well, I never did manage to untangle them, come to think of it… But I could buy a new pair when the old ones eventually broke!
The Walkman was a thing of beauty — worts and all. Obviously, with digital streaming, you can listen to music without any static and everything comes so effortlessly. But, there was a subtle magic in making it all work back in the day — from putting your mixtapes together by hand, song by song, to playing it back and showing off that you could take your music “everywhere you went!” It came with its own grandiose sense of accomplishment when everything would align. Nothing today can quite match the euphoria we felt when the station you were trying to land on actually came through clearly. Not wireless ear buds. Not Spotify. Not even you three Tidal users out there.
It’s all too easy now, and in most ways, that’s all for the better. But let’s celebrate our digital forefather. Happy Birthday, Walkman. We miss you.
Jon Chattman has shared a Reuben sandwich with Randy “Macho Man” Savage, somehow ignited Snoop Dogg to sing Dean Martin, and questioned Meryl Streep on what she’d do during a zombie apocalypse. He has written for a variety of outlets including Huffington Post, Inked Magazine, and USA Today, and runs his own music series (“A-Sides”), which has drawn such acts as Gary Clark, Jr., Imagine Dragons, Sleigh Bells, Joe Perry, and Alice Cooper, to name just a few.