Friday 22 June 2018

Rewind: How the Walkman changed the world . . .

On its 30th anniversary, John Costello pays tribute to the clunky old cassette player that revolutionised the way we live today

The Walkman revolutionised the way we live today.
The Walkman revolutionised the way we live today.

John Costello

There was no MTV. No CDs or digital downloads. Disco reigned supreme. Then Sony released the Walkman. It was the day the music changed.

People laughed at Sony's clunky, chunky, blue and silver device, roughly the size of a paperback, that came with oversized headphones. Headphones so large in fact they were more like earmuffs when compared to the sleek ear pods of today.

This low tide of criticism turned into a tsunami after the press and retailers were introduced to the Walkman. People believed a tape player that could not record would never catch on.

They wondered why anyone would pay hundreds of pounds purely for the pleasure of isolating themselves from the world. Little did the naysayers realise that the Walkman was about to kickstart Generation Me.

Reportedly developed so that Sony's honorary chairman, Masaru Ibuka, could listen to his favourite music on long flights, Sony was so fearful the Walkman would flop its executives secretly halved the 60,000 production run co-founder of the company Akio Morita had ordered.

The result was that only 30,000 were manufactured for the launch of the Walkman in July 1979 -- still a brave decision considering monthly sales of the best-selling tape recorder at the time only averaged 15,000 units.

The response from the media was cool and by the end of July only 3,000 Walkmans had been sold. Sony knew it had a battle on its hands when it came to overcoming the negative image of wearing headphones in public. It began to focus its efforts on winning over grassroots public support rather than trying to woo journalists, and paid people to wear the Walkman on trains, buses and while walking in trendy parts of Tokyo.

Even though there was no big TV advertising campaign, the popularity of the Walkman confounded its critics and grew rapidly. The initial batch of 30,000 sold out by the end of August and retailers' scepticism over the device was replaced with pleas for more supplies as they constantly sold out of the new gizmo.

Soon, the name Walkman became synonymous with headphone stereo products and by 1986 its name was included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Ten years after the launch of the first model, the total number of Walkmans manufactured had exceeded 50 million, and by 1995, production reached 150 million.

But it was not all plain sailing for Sony. The company faced legal action from German-Brazilian inventor Andreas Pavel, who created the first portable personal stereo tape player in 1972.

Although his machine never actually went into production (his "Stereobelt" apparently was way ahead of its time) he had patented the device in several countries. After battling through the courts, Sony eventually signed a deal in 2004, reportedly agreeing to pay Pavel more than $10m plus royalties from the sales of several models of Walkman.

However, the biggest blow dealt to Sony's supremacy came when the iPod was launched in 2001. This marked the moment when the Walkman's dominance of the mobile music market came to an abrupt end.

But now Sony is hoping to recapture the Walkman's former glories.

The new X-Series is a Wi-Fi-capable, web-surfable, touch-screen MP3 and video player, which many critics believe to be capable of beating the iPod at its own game. Only time will tell if the Walkman can rise like a phoenix from the flames, but its 30th birthday is a time for Generation iPod to thank the clunky cassette player for liberating us.

Back in 1979, walking down a street wearing earphones would have drawn puzzled second glances. Thirty years ago, listening to music was a shared experience. The only other portable music device available was the radio. The launch of the Walkman freed music lovers from the tyranny of the radio playlist and allowed them to choose their own music.

"The Walkman provided listeners with a personal soundtrack to their lives," says Robert Nell, Sony's vice president in charge of audio products. People began making their own mix tapes and buying albums and singles on cassette. By 1983, thanks to the Walkman, sales of cassette tapes for the first time pushed past vinyl records. In fact, even when compact discs became mainstream in the mid-1980s, cassettes continued to outsell CDs and vinyl for another decade.

However, the Walkman not only changed our relationship with music -- it changed our relationship with technology. Its solitary, individual nature became its defining feature. Having your own 'personal sound' was the forerunner to personal computers and mobile phones. It was the first device that went hand-in-hand with the concept of Generation Me.

It was the birth of the technology bubble we now surround ourselves with every day, long before the advent of the mobile phone. For the first time it allowed people to isolate themselves from others, to become oblivious to their surroundings and carve out a private space in a public area. It also served as an effective 'Do Not Disturb' sign.

Way before the internet and computer games sparked the ire of parents, the Walkman was being lambasted as "socially alienating" and "destructive of relationships". In an era when families all sat and watched the same television programmes, the Walkman suddenly meant leisure time did not have to be a team sport.

Fast-forward 30 years and to mark the Walkman's anniversary the BBC Magazine invited 13-year-old Scott Campbell to trade his iPod for a Walkman for a week. Apart from being amazed at the bland colour of the bigger and heavier "monstrous box", it took little Scott three days to figure out there was another side to the tape.

But even though the cassette tape has reached technological obsolescence, you can still walk into your local music store and buy a cassette Walkman. So it seems even in the era of digital music, we want legends to live forever.

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