Happy birthday Sony Walkman! Nine reasons how it revolutionised music
Think the iPod changed music? Then think again
Published 01/07/2014 | 14:24
We may laugh at its clunky buttons and dated colours, but before the iPod made music sleeker, but the Walkman changed the world.
And everything the iPod did, the Walkman - this week celebrating its 35th birthday - did first.
Cliff Richards even wrote an ode to the first wave of personalised, portable music.
Thirty-five years after the Walkman was invented, here’s why it's the true hero behind many digital music trends.
iPods made creating the music soundtrack to your life easier, but the Walkman made it possible. Before Sony launched the Walkman in 1979, the only way to listen to music while you walked was through a personal radio - and then you were beholden to the station playlist.
The first Walkman came with two headphone jacks and a button that lowered the music and turned on a microphone, so that two people listening could talk to each other mid-song. Sony co-chairman Akio Morita created these features because he was worried that “it would be considered rude for one person to be listening to his music in isolation". Sony eliminated the sharing features for later models, as isolation stopped being rude and became the norm. “Buyers began to see their little personal stereo sets as very personal. While I expected people to share their Walkmans, we found that everybody seemed to want his or her own,” said Morita.
2. Headphone Culture
In the biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes of the Apple founder’s plans for white headphones as an example of his innovative thinking. “Headphones can’t be white!” cried the tech drones, “They’ve always been black!” Changing the colour of headphones is pretty transformative, but the Walkman was much more radical: it created headphone culture. Sony was worried that headphones might be thought of as a sign of a hearing disability, and so they hired cool young people to reduce the stigma by wearing their headphones around Tokyo neighbourhoods.
The original request for a headphone came from Sony co-chairman Masaru Ibuka, who wanted to listen to opera music on his long business flights. Now, personal music is the lifeline that guides us through public transport. We may be surrounded by thousands of other people, but we’re in our own world. The Washington Post obituary Morita wrote that the look and sound of the Walkman dead “is so familiar now we don’t see or hear it any more”. In case you can’t picture it, it’s “the head cocked at a slight angle, the mouth gently lolling. From about the skull comes a tinny low buzzing sound, like metallic bees. The eyes flicker with consciousness, but they don't see. They're somewhere else.”
Even if you can’t play, you can now create your own music. The Walkman created the muso: the connoisseur who shows off their musical expertise through selection, not production. The iPod jumped on this trend, but the Walkman was the first device to create the sense of "my music", which came in the form of mixed tapes. A romantic gesture that’s waiting for a comeback, there’s no better way to create a personalised message than hand picking the songs that speak to you.
5. Vague adverts
Early iPod adverts didn’t explain the features of this nifty new device; instead, it showed silhouettes of people dancing against brightly coloured tropical backgrounds. An early Walkman advert showed a woman dancing with small headphones, while a miserable Buddhist monk with bulky earphones looks on.
Nowadays, it’s considered high-tech to put an “i” in front of everything. But Walkman was way ahead, storming into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986.
The Walkman helped launch an exercise boom, with both aerobics and jogging taking off under the soundtrack of personal music systems. Before the Walkman, the sight of amateur athletes running in circles was a comic novelty, while there was a 30 per cent rise in the number of people walking for exercise in 1987-88, the height of the Walkman craze.
8. Terrifying the music industry
Before record labels had iTunes to deal with, they had to face the Walkman and home recording. So much so, the British Phonographic Industry created a campaign that claimed: "Home taping is killing music. And it's illegal". Sound familiar?
Sony rushed to launch the Walkman by summer, because it wanted to target students on holiday. The gadget also cost just over £100, so it didn’t price out young people. Long before the iPod, the Walkman rejected geek technology and saw the beginning of cool tech culture. Thirty-five years later, we should respect it for what it was: a true revolutionary.