Before the days of MP3 players and streaming services, bringing your music with you was a lot more cumbersome. In the 1990s, you had to either settle for the same album over and over again or carry a booklet of CDs with you wherever you went. Before the late 1970s, you had the radio, or you sat next to your record player and hoped excitement came to you. One way or another, people found a way to bring music into their homes, but the era of truly portable music was only made possible thanks to the invention of the Walkman on July 1, 1979.
History in the making
Plenty of people reading this are old enough to remember seeing or even having a Walkman of our own around the house as kids. Any 80s or 90s kid remembers the rectangular devices with their chunky buttons and the belt clips on the back. What most of us aren’t aware of is how that revolutionary device came into being. For over a decade the portable technology needed for cassette tapes had been in use by journalists, secretaries, and others in similar professions. Prerecorded cassette tapes holding music for private listening at home and on the go rolled onto the market in the 1960s. While vinyl records and radios remained the popular choices in the homestead, tape decks in cars gained popularity alongside the ever-present radio.
Finally, in 1979, the brilliant minds at Sony designed the Walkman TPS-L2, the first ever portable personal music playback device. It was designed to play cassette tapes from inside its compact metal casing, and it came equipped with two 3.5mm headphone jacks and a snazzy leather case. You could listen by yourself or with a friend, and most importantly, you could take it with you wherever you went. Initially, the little blue and silver device had a bit of an identity crisis. It went by the name “Sound-About” in the US and the “Stowaway” in the UK. Each country the product debuted in met it under a new alias. Eventually, Sony copyrighted the name “Walkman” as a play on the name of an earlier handheld recording device, the Sony Pressman, and the name stuck.
Sales took off, and the cassette craze swept the globe during the 1980s. Other large electronics companies jumped on the bandwagon, producing their own versions of the revolutionary portable devices, some adding radio capabilities and others adding recording hardware back into the mix. By 1983, cassettes outsold vinyl records for the first time in history, and by 1986, the word “Walkman” had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. New and wilder models of the Walkman came out, featuring solar cells, water-resistant casings, and even double tape decks. The portable music player’s launch also lined up with the aerobics sensation for which so many of us remember the colorful and cardio-conscious 80s, making the convenience of on-the-go personal music so much more appealing.
Unfortunately, 1982 brought a new contender to the playing field: The compact disc. CDs caught on quickly, and cassette players risked going the way of 8-tracks and Betamax if they didn’t adapt. Despite modifications and accessories, the next logical step for the Walkman was to morph into a player for the next generation. Not wasting a moment, Sony released the D-50 portable CD player under the name Walkman, now recognized as a brand rather than a specific item. In the following years, new models of CD player hit the market, and with the advent of MP3s and digital music formats in the late 90s, Sony’s Walkman evolved once again. Today, the brand continues to survive through both MP3 players and, for those of us with more nostalgic tastes, single-deck cassette players.
The legacy of the Walkman
The fact that technology has moved on from the days of rewinding metallic ribbons with pencil erasers and having to flip your music over to hear the rest of the album doesn’t mean that Walkmans don’t still have a place in popular culture. Possibly the most ubiquitous facet of pop culture in which Walkmans have held on tight is cinema. Guardians Of The Galaxy brought us a classic soundtrack, courtesy of Starlord’s Awesome Mix Volume I (and later, Volume II). His original Walkman is a focal point of his character, and it reminds those of us who have been swept up in the age of Spotify, iHeart Radio, and Pandora of our humble origins.
Likewise, plenty of people still use the term “mixtape” when referring to custom combinations of music, even if they aren’t piled onto a cassette. The practice of making mixtapes also marked the birth of modern music piracy. Standing next to the radio in complete silence to record the song you wanted was the first step in a long line of lifting music from the airwaves without passing a single cent onto the artist. Next came the days of holding your phone to a speaker to record the perfect ringtone. After that, pirated MP3s from ripped CDs or the time-honored radio recording method. Even today, music piracy is as popular as ever. If you ask artists, streaming services, paid or otherwise, are only a small step above the days of recording songs straight from your favorite radio station.
After 40 years, the Walkman brand is carrying on, iteration after iteration evolving from the original blue and silver steel design. Cassettes may no longer be the format of choice, but they remain on store and home library shelves around the world. Whether it’s the urge to relive childhood memories, to be cool like Starlord, or simply the nostalgic softness of the sound imprinted on the yards of spooled metallic ribbon, cassettes still hold a special place in our hearts.