Saturday, August 8, 2009

30 Years of Music Freedom

Just like many people around me, I use a portable audio player.

These days, it is hard to find someone I know from age 10 to 60, who does not have a portable audio device. Very soon, perhaps your dogs or cats would own a Nano or Shuffle too.

Ever since Apple Inc. launched the first generation iPod in 2001, iPod has become synonymous to portable music player. There are definitely a long list of alternative makes but iPod is probably the most well recognised.

Last month, the news on Michael Jackson's death (25 Jun) continued to flood the media. The music industry has indeed lost an icon and a mega talent. What many people did not realise is that a significant milestone in the music industry has passed quietly amidst the mourning, praises, criticism and police investigation.

Yes, Sony Walkman turns 30 on 1 Jul 2009.

The birth of Sony Walkman not only changed the way we listen to music, it also changed the way we connect with each other (or if you like, the way we stop connecting with each other). Before Walkman, nobody would want to be seen in public with ear buds, behaving as if they were in their own world, even though the next human being was crushing against his skin in a crowded train.

It all started because the boss of Sony wanted to be able to listen to operas during his frequent plane trips. So his engineer created a device for him. Sony later thought that the consumers might like it as well and started to market it under the brand name of "Walkman". The Sony boss initially loathed the name but reluctantly accepted 'Walkman' when told that their marketing campaign had gone on a big way.

As it turned out, "Walkman" was a huge success. Besides it, "Pressman", "Watchman", "Scoopman", "Discman", and "Talkman" are also trademarks of Sony. (All were men, where were the women?)

To all the geek kiddos, get this right first: "Walkman" does not store your audio files in MP3 or WMA format. No one has ever heard of 1GB storage space, USB port or touch screen 30 years ago. So, don't ask ridiculous questions such as sound quality and the availability of bluetooth.

"Walkman" is cassette-based. This means that you insert an audio cassette into the player and it plays back via the headphone. And in case you are too young to know, cassette tapes have two sides. The player will play on one side at a time. To continue to listen on the other side, you literally take the tape out and flip it around and insert it back in, unless your player comes with an "auto-reverse" feature.

Today, if you look hard enough, you still can find such cassette players although their popularity has diminished with the advent of digital music players. Sony has not been updating their cassette "Walkman" since 2002.

When "Walkman" was first marketed, Sony expected to sell about 5,000 units a month but in the first year of release, more than one million units were sold and in all, Sony has sold 385 million "Walkman" devices worldwide and the brand name is still being used today.

Long before "Walkman", pocket-size transistor radios existed (for the younger geeks, just take it as 'small portable radios'). However, the users had no control over the choice of music and when it is to be played. There were also personal cassette players but they were not small enough to be lugged along. "Walkman" made it possible for users to choose their songs and enjoy music on-the-go.

"Walkman" has also radically changed the use and perception of headphones. Before the "Walkman" era, it was totally uncool to be seen with a pair of headphones for they were 'reserved' for those with hearing problems. Fast forward 30 years later, the image of one wearing a pair headphones or earphones has been totally transformed.

When you see a person walking alone with his ear buds in his ears, you could label him as 'cool' or 'anti-social', depending on your own set of social norms. The social behavior of people living in their solitary bubble of music is real today but 30 years ago, it was difficult to take such social behavior as the norm.

When the first "Walkman" was made, it came with two jacks, allowing two persons to enjoy the same music at the same time. At that time, Sony could not imagine that anyone would like the idea of walking around alone with music all to himself.

"Walkman" is the predecessor to the iPods and other similar portable music devices. I must thank Sony for revolutionizing personal music. Today, I bring my music with me wherever I go. The world will be too empty if it is not filled with music.

When "Walkman" was first released, it was retailed at US$200. That was a lot of money 30 years ago. The prices did come down later on but they never came within my affordability range. So, I have never owned a "Walkman" before but my first portable music device many years later was a cassette-based player of a cheaper make. Later, I progressed to a portable CD player.

I do not own any of the popular iPod devices. With the range of portable digital music players today, we are really spoilt for choices. I carry one with a fairly good sound quality, a touch screen, a decent storage capacity and built-in bluetooth. It can store more songs than I ever needed at any one time and it is one of the few things I would not leave home without.

30 years on, the idea of portable music created by Sony has been well succeeded. Next, I am looking forward to the day when I can enjoy good portable music, minus the wire.

Before I end, just for your information, the proper plural form of "Walkman" is "Walkman Personal Stereos." So, don't go round boasting that you have two or more "Walkmen".

"Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence."
~Robert Fripp~ (British Musician)

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MJ: His Music Lives On

Music : My Multivites

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