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

It may look like an antique by today's standards, but Sony's personal cassette player paved the way for the iPod and the subsequent ability to stream songs, TV shows and movies from our smartphones.

The 1979 device took music from the private sphere into the public

Photo of a blue Sony Walkman cassette player standing upright on a table.
A 1980 Sony Walkman 'Stowaway TPS-L2' is pictured during a press preview for the Victoria and Albert Museum's new Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art on Nov. 2, 2015 in London. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

This story is part of The Butterfly Effect, a special Spark series about technological advancements that had a much larger impact than most people anticipated.

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

"It was putting a cassette deck and a pair of headphones plugged in [together]. That's all it is," Michael Bull, a professor of sound studies at the University of Sussex in the U.K., told Spark host Nora Young. 

Cassette tapes had been around since the 1960s. In the late '70s, Sony released the Pressman, a clunky tape deck with voice recording functions and built-in speaker meant for reporters. 

But Sony's then-chairman Akio Morita had greater ambitions. The Japanese company stripped away the Pressman's speaker and recorder, paired it with a slim pair of headphones and gave it a now-iconic blue-and-silver deco, accented with a fluorescent orange "line in" button. 

Black and white photo of a Japanese man with white hair and glasses smiling as he holds a Sony Walkman and pair of headphones in his hands.
In this Feb. 2, 1982 file photo, Sony Corp. Chairman Akio Morita laughs during a meeting where he displays a Walkman in Tokyo, Japan. (Neal Ulevich/The Associated Press)

The Walkman model TPS-L2 exploded in popularity, and went on to change people's relationship with music and how they listened to it. It also set the blueprint for portable devices, traces of which remain in the design of our smartphones today. 

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

"When I put it on, I couldn't believe the fidelity. It was just so much better than anything I'd ever heard that was portable," he said.

Sony sold millions of Walkmans, helping cassettes overtake vinyl discs as the musical medium of choice. The brand name continued on as consumers migrated to using compact discs, and eventually digital MP3 players.

Cassettes have grown in popularity as of late as a retro curiosity, thanks in part to appearing in pop culture like Stranger Things and Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

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

But it remains a well-known name and product, thanks in part to its frequent appearance in nostalgia-fuelled pop culture, from Stranger Things to Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.

"I think it's become one of the shorthand icons for the '80s, in the same way that if you go into a party store and you say, 'I want to have an '80s party,' they'll have like a banner that has Pac-Man and a Rubik's Cube on it," said Blahut.

'I made you a mix tape'

Taking a Walkman outside on a run took the music-listening experience from the privacy of your family room to the public sphere.

It not only changed where we listened to music, but how we listened, too. With those headphones, you became an audience of one, even in a crowd. That could be empowering, especially to youth at the time.

"Suddenly you didn't have to put your music on Dad's stereo and have him yelling how much it sucks. You can just put it on, and it wasn't a compromise to listen to it on your system; it still sounded great," said Blahut.

Not everyone was amused.

"The critique of the Walkman when it first came out was the older generation … saying it's antisocial. 'You're putting your headphones on, you can't hear what other people are saying,' etc., etc.," said Bull.

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

It also helped proliferate the popularity of the mix tape.

Now you could personalize a tape with your favourite songs, make a playlist of tunes that elicit a certain emotion — or make one for the object of your affections when you just couldn't find the right words yourself.

"What more romantic thing could you do: think about the other person, think of the playlist you want, give it to them, and then imagine them walking around? That's fantastic. That was totally new," said Bull.

More is better — or is it?

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

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

"I remember recording songs off the radio and you'd have the intro from the DJ, and then they would talk over the first 10 seconds of your favourite song or something and [you'd] be like, 'Oh no, I'll record it another day,'" said Green, an associate professor of marketing at Brock University in Ontario.

"I don't take as much either satisfaction or interest in putting a playlist together. I'll just sort of drag and drop over 1,000 songs that I love and just say: play on random. And it isn't quite the same."

From left, an iPod, iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle are displayed at an 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 as people switched to listening to music on their smartphones instead. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Smartphones upended our habits even further.

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

Digital marketing expert Josh Viner posited that in the future, our devices will be able to customize a playlist on the fly by reading our heart rate or other biometric data.

"Our devices will know exactly what we want before we know we want it ... whether we want to go for a run and want high-tempo music," he offered as an example.

Rumours earlier this year suggested the next Apple AirPods (wireless earphones) would have a built-in heart monitor for just such a purpose, though the idea was later quashed.

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

"It's in competition with lots of other things, like contacting people, or watching something [on video] … where it was never in that competition before, especially when you were on the move," said Bull.

Walking it back

In the past few years, cassette tapes have grown in popularity among a small but noticeable audience — despite the fact it's much harder to find a working cassette player, and they have relatively low-fi audio quality.

Cassette tapes grew in popularity by nine per cent this past fall compared to the same time last year, according to Luminate Data, a music sales data company based in the U.S.

In a quote first provided to Rolling Stone this October, Luminate CEO Rob Jonas said millennials were most likely to buy cassettes, in part because they wanted to directly support artists of their choice instead of giving their money to streaming services, which offer artists low pay-outs per play. 

Bull says he's seen people dig out their old iPods, perhaps as a direct response to the do-everything nature of modern phones.

"Quite a lot of people still go back … because they want something that is just music," he said.

So the next time you see someone on the bus vibing with their headphones on, holding a phone in their hand, it's worth remembering where it all started.

Produced by Adam Killick, Nora Young and Olsy Sorokina.


Jonathan Ore


Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.

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