Over the past couple of weeks, I have delved into studying the history of personal musical handsets, the way they were formulated into existence and the influence they have formulated into today’s generation of devices. As stated in the last post, these observations fall largely under the “Walkman Effect”; that is the influence that Sony’s device brought about from the late 1970’s and of which we still feel today.
The Walkman by no means was the first in it’s category to bring music portably to the individual; it was however the leader in a portable evolution, an evolution of our society and a revolution in technology. In 1978, Sony successfully consummated a compact playback device with lightweight headphones to create the first truly portable, personal technological device, as it was smaller and lighter than any other portable audio device on the market. In 1979, the ‘Walkman’ was introduced in the Japan, selling its entire stock of 30,000 units within the first three months. According to CBS;
“A Walkman cost $200.00 in 1979. Considering the average monthly rent in 1979 was $280.00, that’s a significant amount of money.”
One thing I did not know prior to undertaking this research was that in an attempt to get Japanese students to purchase the Walkman during their summer break, which coincided with the release in July 1979, Sony employees would walk the streets of Tokyo offering students and young people free samples of the Walkman, such as allowing them to walk a block with it on and then return it, of which gave valuable, if not supremely truth worthy, product endorsement.
Hosokawa’s 2008 article “The Walkman Effect” cites a study undertaken in the mid 1980’s by French magazine, Le Novel Observateur, where they ask whether “men with Walkman’s are human or not; whether they are in touch with reality or separated from it?”, in which an interviewee responds that the question is outdated, that “these are the days of autonomy and an intersection of singularity and discourse” This observation came across quite strongly to me, as here is a respondent, aged between 18-21 years old in mid-1980’s France, who states an argument that has been the lightning rod of marketing campaigns of every technology and media marketing campaign, from Apple to Warner Bros. That is that devices, in this case the Walkmen, are beacons of self-government and expression, of taking control of your surroundings but not excluding you from the world you are in. I strongly agree with this sentiment, for as I am a dependent of public transport to go to and from University, a necessity is my phone and earphones, which are far more pivotal than an Opal card.
It is this reliance upon my mobile to provide me and my travelling counterparts with an escape from the mundaneness of the bus ride and the never-ending trip down Appin Road that underlines the importance, not reliance but importance, of innovation and technology. This too is the very reason, as mentioned in the previous post, why Sony initially developed the Walkman, to allow users a slice of escape during whichever activity the like; be it flights, bus trips, roller skating or just walking through the city.
During my research into these devices, my Mum just so happened to have kept her PYE Companion 5000 Stereo Cassette portable radio from her late teens-early adult years. It’s large, chunky and heavy by todays standards, but you have got to appreciate the finesse that went into the device, from the deep blue leather case, to the spongey headset and the dual ability to play tapes and a FM radio. Below is a series of photos, and for a touch of the 21st century, a Samsung S5 belonging to my Grandmother, as this is Digital Asia and an iPhone won’t cut it.
As can clearly be seen, the size difference is astounding. Both devices have cases on them, however whilst you would need to clip the Companion onto your belt or into ones handbag, the Samsung can easily fit into your pocket or palm. The 16GB S5 can hold roughly 4,000 songs, which with the cassette player one would require roughly 266 cassette tapes as an equivalent. Try getting those onboard your next Qantas flight.
266 cassette tapes? Impressive.
Speaking of experience, during my flight to Los Angeles last November, I was presented with the option to plug my phone into my inseat-enteetainment system, so if I chose to, I could listen to my music or view my photos via the tv screen in front of me.
So has the Walkman left a mark upon our society? Undeniably yes. In his book, Boy meets Boy, David Leviathan states “O Lord, as I walk through the valley of the shadow of doubt, at least let me wear a Walkman”, as the central character uses the device to provide motivation and an escape from embarrassment. According to former Apple CEO John Sculley;
“I remember Akio Morita (Sony founder) gave Steve and me each one of the first Sony Walkmans. None of us had ever seen anything like that before because there had never been a product like that… Steve was fascinated by it. The first thing he did with his was take it apart and he looked at every single part. How the fit and finish was done, how it was built.”
Steve and John weren’t the only ones fascinated by it, as Sony gave both of them and the world the concept of personal portable music, and that is something I have come to appreciate whilst researching this topic. You see, the Walkman, as a device, has faded into history, being uncompetitive against the current iPod and mobile phone mp3 files of today; however, the Walkman, as a tool of social revolution, is still with us. It’s design concept is still here, a box with headphones, has not changed, for if you were to look at the images of the S5 and the Companion 5000 we just examined, the main difference in facial design is size.
It is also worth noting that the Walkman is an excellent example as a representation of culture, and in 1997 theorists studying the Walkman coined the term “Circuit of Culture” as a means of analysing the impact the device hashed on contemporary society. The 5 factors; Representation, Identity, Production, Consumption and Regulation are all interconnected with one another and rely on each other to perform. For example, the conception of the Walkmans identity formed the way the device was consumed by buyers, and the production of the device was guided by the regulations of the day, in particular what could be taken onboard aircraft, for which the Walkman was initially designed for.
This concept is perhaps the most constructive and correct analysation of the Walkman, for it underscores the importance and impact it has had on our society, and it turn, the Circuit of Culture is now a standard model used to determine other impacts upon our society, such as the Playstation and the iPhone. Thus, the Walkman has undeniably left an everlasting, deep impact upon our social, technological and cultural industries, and 30 years on, it continues to do so.
Hosokawa, S. (2008) ‘The walkman effect’, Popular Music, 4, pp. 165–180. doi: 10.1017/S0261143000006218.
Du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Madsen, A.K., Mackay, H. and Negus, K., 2013. Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. Sage.
Dodds, W.B. and Monroe, K.B., 1985. The effect of brand and price information on subjective product evaluations. NA-Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12.
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. and Bochner, A.P., 2011. Autoethnography: an overview. Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, pp.273-290.
Ellis, C.S. and Bochner, A., 2000. Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject.
Lloyd, D 26th June 2004, “A brief History of iPod”, ilounge.com, http://www.ilounge.com/index.php/articles/comments/instant-expert-a-brief-history-of-ipod/
Schlender, B 12th November 2001, “Apple’s 21st century Walkman”, fortune.com, http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2001/11/12/313342/index.htm
History.com Staff, 2009 “The first Sony Walkman goes on Sale”, A+E Networks, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-first-sony-walkman-goes-on-sale
Sandoval, G 26th October 2010, “Goodbye Walkman; Thanks for the iPod”, cnet.com http://www.cnet.com/au/news/goodbye-walkman-thanks-for-the-ipod/