Sony Walkman at 30

Before Palm Pilots, Smart Phones and iPods there was… The Walkman. Thirty years ago, on July 1st, Sony unveiled the TPS-L2 cassette player or The Walkman. This portable music apparatus, designed by an engineer named Nobutoshi Khara, changed the way music was branded, packaged, and listened to.

It was a revolutionary device. It had dual headphone jacks so more then one person could plug in. It had separate audio channels so the listener could decide what the volume levels were. It had forward and rewind buttons. It ran on batteries. It was also portable and easy to carry around discreetly. But perhaps most importantly it allowed the consumer to select what would be listened to, whether it was a prerecorded cassette or a new fangled contrivance called a “mix tape.” Thanks to The Walkman, the age of portable music had arrived.

The timing could not have been better. Radio was just beginning to fracture and segment off into the current debacle that it is today, paving the way for the advent of college radio. This was coupled by a desire for consumer control over what was heard and made The Walkman and its subsequent cheaper knockoffs a success. Thanks to The Walkman the concept of a mobile, private audio space was born.

In the early 1980s consumers were eager to spend money on the latest cool gizmos. The Walkman was instantly popular because it picked up where the portable radio left off by making music more personal, introverted and portable. It was the best of both worlds: a cool new gadget and a means for the listener to separate from the controlled formats of radio. This dissonance and separation also meant that any person could listen to whatever they wished in the privacy of their own ears without risk of ridicule or a beating from hipsters and burnouts. Thus a simple cassette player had become a symbol of rebellion and individuality.

At a time when control and paranoia were prominent in popular culture The Walkman provided an affordable and portable sense of diversion, control and separation. It helped the user create their own soundtrack, a doorway to daydreams, self-reflection and creative dreaming where no one could enter. This new form of escapism for the lonely, geeky or shy suddenly made it cool to not interact.

This spirit of independence made it a cultural icon. Print ads, TV and films cashed in by placing it amidst hot models, rebels and roustabouts. The shiny newness of portable music was globally branded forever, changing how music appreciation was marketed to the masses. The economics of all of this meant that The Walkman leveled the playing field. From the ghetto to the suburbs, people controlled their music.

Although The Walkman bridged the gap from the creation of mix tape culture to a more portable and musically literate generations its heyday was rapidly coming to an end. Despite selling over 50 million players in its first decade, by the mid to late 1990s the Walkman was mostly obsolete. The Disc Man was now all the rage until the portable MP player and iPod eventually replaced it.

For those of us who had our musical coming of age during the turbulent musical terrain of the 1980s the Walkman was a welcome friend, companion, doorway and savior. Happy Birthday!