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You can thank the old Sony Walkman for ushering in the era of portable entertainment

spark53:53560: The Butterfly Effect, Part 3 – Personal Audio Player

This story is part of The Butterfly Effect, a special spark series about technological developments that have had a much greater impact than most people expected.

Sony’s first Walkman wasn’t technically a new invention when it first hit the market in 1979.

A cassette deck and a pair of headphones were being put in [together]. That’s it,” said Michael Poole, professor of vocal studies at the University of Sussex in the UK spark Hosted by Nora Young.

Cassette tapes have been around since the 1960’s. In the late 1970s, Sony released the Pressman, a vintage tape deck with audio recording functions and a built-in microphone intended for journalists.

But then-Sony chairman Akio Morita had bigger ambitions. The Japanese company stripped out the Pressman’s amplifier and recorder, paired it with a thin pair of headphones and gave it a now-iconic blue-and-silver deco, with the fluorescent orange “line in” button highlighted.

Black and white portrait of a Japanese man with white hair and glasses smiling while holding a Sony Walkman and a pair of headphones in his hands.
In this February 2, 1982 photo, the head of Sony Corp. laughs. Akio Morita during a meeting where he is demonstrating his Walkman in Tokyo, Japan. (Neil Olevich/The Associated Press)

The Walkman TPS-L2 has exploded in popularity, continuing to change people’s relationship with music and how they listen to it. It also defined a blueprint for mobile devices, traces of which can still be found in the design of our smartphones today.

TV producer and vintage tech enthusiast Bohuš Blahut vividly remembers when he first tried his cousin’s Walkman. The Chicago native, who was then nine years old, was visiting relatives in Canada.

“When I put it on, I couldn’t believe the sincerity,” he said. “It was so much better than anything I’d ever heard that was portable.”

Sony has sold millions of Walkmans, helping cassette tapes overtake vinyl discs as the preferred musical medium. The brand name persisted as consumers transitioned to CDs, and eventually digital MP3 players.

cassette tapes
Cassettes have recently grown in popularity as an ancient curiosity, thanks in part to pop culture hits like Stranger Things and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. (Mohamed Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Walkman brand had all but died out by 2010, as the digital music market was overtaken first by Apple’s iPod, and later smartphones.

But he remains a popular name and producer, thanks in part to his frequent appearances in nostalgia-fueled pop culture, from Weird things for Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy.

“I think it’s become one of the shorthand symbols of the ’80s, in the same way that if you go to a party store and say, ‘I want to throw an ’80s party,’ they’ll have like a banner with Pac-Man and a Rubik’s Cube,” Belhot said.

“I made you a mixtape”

Taking your Walkman outside for a run takes your music listening experience from the privacy of your family room into the public domain.

Not only has where we listened to music changed, but how we listened as well. With these headphones, you become one audience, even in a crowd. It could be possible, especially for the young people of the time.

“Suddenly you didn’t have to put your music on your dad’s stereo and have him scream how bad it was. You could put it on play, and listening to it on your system wasn’t a compromise; it still sounded great,” Belhot said.

Not everyone was amused.

“The criticism of the Walkman when it first came out was the older generation … saying it’s antisocial. You put your headphones on, you can’t hear what other people are saying,” said Paul, and so on. .

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Several Walkman models are displayed at an exhibition marking the iconic device’s 40th anniversary in Tokyo on July 10, 2019. (Miwa Suzuki/AFP via Getty Images)

It also helped spread the mixtape’s popularity.

Now you can customize a bar with your favorite songs, make a playlist of tunes that evoke a specific emotion – or create one for the subject of your feelings when you just can’t find the right words yourself.

“What’s the most romantic thing you could do: think of the other person, think of a playlist you want, give it to them, and then imagine them touring? That’s cool. That was so fresh,” said Paul.

More is better – or is it?

The iPod and other digital music players unchained users from physical tape or CD in the 2000s.

Suddenly you can carry hundreds, if not thousands of songs in the palm of your hand. Creating a playlist on Spotify or iTunes, for example, has never been easier. But as Todd Green would argue, something was lost along the way.

“I remember recording songs from the radio and you’d get an intro from the DJ, and then they’d talk for the first 10 seconds of your favorite song or something.” [you’d] Green, associate professor of marketing at Brock University in Ontario, said:

“I don’t take as much satisfaction or interest in putting a playlist together. I’m going to drag and drop 1,000+ songs that I like and just say: play at random. And it’s completely different.”

apple ipods demise
From left, the iPod, iPod Nano, and iPod Shuffle are displayed at the Apple Store in New York in 2015. The iPod helped usher in the era of digital music, but the Nano and Shuffle were discontinued in 2017 when people switched to listening to music on their smartphones instead of on that. (Mark Lenihan / Associated Press)

Smartphones have changed our habits even further.

Services like Spotify have incentivized users to stream music via subscription, rather than buying albums or singles. Algorithms that monitor your listening habits suggest new content based on what you’ve already heard, rather than waiting to read the next album review in Rolling Stone or pitchfork.

Digital marketing expert Josh Viner hypothesized that in the future, our devices will be able to instantly personalize a playlist by reading your heart rate or other vital data.

He gave as an example: “Our devices will know exactly what we want before we know we want it… whether we want to run and we want up-tempo music”.

Rumors earlier this year indicated that the next Apple AirPods (wireless earbuds) would have a built-in heart monitor for this purpose, though the idea was later scrapped.

Perhaps most importantly, the smartphone does more than just play music.

“It’s in competition with a lot of other things, like contacting people, or watching something [on video] Where he hasn’t been in that competition before, especially when I’m on the move,” Paul said.

Walk back

In the past few years, cassette tapes have grown in popularity among a small but noticeable audience – despite the fact that it’s hard to find a working cassette player, and they have relatively poor sound quality.

The popularity of cassette tapes grew 9 percent last fall compared to the same time last year, according to Luminate Data, a US-based music sales data company.

In the first submitted citation to Rolling Stone In October, Luminate CEO Rob Jonas said millennials were more likely to buy cassettes, in part because they wanted to directly support the artists of their choice rather than giving their money to streaming services, which offer artists low per-play payments.

Paul says he’s seen people pull out old iPods, perhaps as a direct response to how everything works for modern phones.

“A lot of people still come back… because they want something that’s just music,” he said.

So the next time you see someone on the bus shuddering with headphones on, phone in hand, it’s worth remembering where it all began.


Produced by Adam Kilic, Nora Young and Olsi Sorokina.