Before There Were MP3s: The Sony Walkman

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Sony Walkman

These days, you can stream just about any artist, album or genre wherever you are — a seemingly endless amount of music is so easily available. Those of us of a certain age didn’t grow up with this luxury, but we had something pretty special: The (cassette-based) Sony Walkman and awesome mix tapes.

Sony sold 220 million of these tape players. That’s pretty amazing when you consider that other iconic music player, the Apple iPod, sold 275 million units between 2001 and 2010.

Just as the iPod transformed the music industry with its “1,000 songs in your pocket” offering, the Walkman changed our interaction with music. It took music out of the living room and into the streets. Sure, there were other portable music players in the ’80s that competed with the Walkman, but the Walkman was the first to truly make music conveniently portable (it ran on two AA batteries) and personal (it had no external speaker, only a headphone jack).  Time magazine noted that “the 1980s could well have been the Walkman decade.”

I remember the Walkman as a device that gave me privacy, and also consoled and energized me. With headphones on, I could be in my own bubble in walks home from school or stave off the boredom during long car rides. I had both a huge stash of cassette tapes (thanks to BMG Music Club’s “12 tapes for the price of 1!” subscription service) and a few carefully compiled mix tapes.

Making mix tapes is a long lost art. As John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity says: “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” Making and giving mix tapes to people of the opposite gender was a form of courtship, and the Walkman helped you keep your carefully curated music with you at all times.

Though it’s been about four years since the cassette-based Walkman was discontinued, it’s popularity may be on the upswing. In the Guardians of the Galaxy, Star-Lord’s Sony Walkman and the Awesome Mix Tape (vol. 1) it played are instrumental to the film — even more precious to the character than the world-destroying orb the movie centers around.

Thanks to the movie and nostalgic former Walkman owners like myself, the “vintage” 1979 Sony TPS-L2 Walkman cassette player is now selling on eBay for over $800. That’s too steep for me, but with a few apps and some retro accessories, you can transform your iPhones into faux Walkmans. It’s not as good as having a real rewind button, but then again, few things are.

Photo credit: eBay.

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