Fast Company

The History of Personal, Portable Music: Home Taping Is Never Not Killing Music

home taping sign

It's startling how much of the history of one of the most popular and groundbreaking gadgets of all time is still generally unknown, including lots of trivia that make the whole story so fun. Well, actually, given that I was -7 years old when the first Walkman (then called the Soundabout) was announced in 1979, maybe it's not all that surprising.

The story starts with how the Walkman came to be--one of Sony's cofounders loved listening to music over headphones while on the plane, but Sony's then-current offering was bulky and expensive. He asked his engineers to create a smaller and more convenient version, and the first Walkman was born. That much is pretty well known.

But did you know that the first major marketing push involved a feature nobody actually cared about? The first Walkman came with two headphone jacks, because, reasoned Sony, who wants to isolate themselves? As it turned out, the answer to that was "everyone." Now the ad campaign featuring happy couples sharing music through one Walkman as they roller skated, sat on a bench staring at each other, or sky-dived (without any protective gear at all--what kind of message did that send to children of 1979, Sony?).

walkmen adsOr did you know that starting in the early 1980s, there were serious sociological studies about the effect of sealing oneself off from the rest of the world with headphones? Somewhat uncomfortably, in 2010 retrospect, the word "autism" was often used to describe this new trend, as in "The Walkman … promoted autism and isolation, with consequences yet untold."

The story skips pretty quickly past CDs, because why not, it's just my childhood that is apparently so unimportant to the history of music technology (Everclear was a great band, right?) that it can be totally ignored. But it ends on the death of radio and the triumph of personal, individual playlists, concluding that what the record labels really hate is their lack of control. I'd personally say that a lack of control is more a secondary concern, next to the lack of income, but it's an interesting point nonetheless. Check out the full story on Rhapsody--even a music freak slash tech nerd like myself learned a few things.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one--you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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2 Comments

  • Michael Brown

    Quote: " as they roller skated, sat on a bench staring at each other, or sky-dived (without any protective gear at all--what kind of message did that send to children of 1979, Sony?)."

    What kind of a wuss needs "protective gear" to rollerskate?

  • Robert Day

    Didn't the newest Walkman branded product feature a bluetooth like mechanism for people in proximity to share music? I recall a commercial with an Alien DJing a "silent" Walkman party.

    As someone who pokes fun at the isolationist mentality fostered by new technology, I applaud Sony for their attempt in 1979 and whatever that was they tried this time.