On July 1, 1979, the now-iconic TPS-L2 model hit the shelves of Japanese stores, prompting a revolution in the way we listen to and consume music that changed the course of history. The company behind the invention, Sony, didn’t have very big expectations for the product at the time. Executives there estimated they would sell about 5,000 units per month—instead, they sold 50,000 in just the first two.
By December of that same year, they released the new product in the US and UK, adapting the name to better suit each of the markets: Soundabout in the US and Stowaway in the UK.
When it was evident that the product was becoming a worldwide sensation, one of Sony’s founders, Akio Morita (self-credited with coming up with the idea for the product) decided it was too confusing to use different names and settled on the one that, in his opinion, best-described the product’s use: Walkman.
But let's take a step back. For, in all fairness, this story starts a few years before, with the development of the compact cassette.
Released in 1962 by the Dutch company Phillips, the first iteration didn’t have the quality necessary to reproduce music and was instead oriented toward the dictation machine market (much like Thomas Edison's early plans for the phonograph). But by 1964, improvements in the tape formula and audio fidelity made it possible for record companies to start releasing music cassettes. Among the first published were The Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! and the original soundtrack for the movie Doctor Zhivago.
It wasn't until the late '70s that cassettes had reached a level of audio quality that surpassed 8-track tape. With the evolution of stereo tape decks, boomboxes, and other reliable playback devices—combined with cassettes' small size and easy-to-use track selection features—cassettes soon eclipsed 8-tracks. But the introduction of the Walkman brought the cassette into a whole new era of portability and individual listening.
Sony’s invention was nothing less than revolutionary. Larger (though still portable) cassette recorders had been around since the late-'60s, but never before could you throw a cassette player in your pocket. Suddenly people could enjoy their favorite music wherever and whenever they wanted, in a private and intimate way. Any activity could feel completely different, loneliness could be not quite so lonely, and life could be experienced with your own soundtrack that painted everything in an exciting new light.
This renewed sense of enjoyment and freedom was, for many, worth the $200 they had to pay to take part (that's roughly $700 in today’s dollars). During the first two years, Sony sold 1.5 million units, grappling constantly to meet demand.
Though it was an incredible invention, the Walkman wasn’t perfect, and it had its fair share of limitations. Skipping songs could be a tedious and battery-consuming experience. The tape itself, of course, would degrade with time and lead to a perceivable decrease in sound quality, but it could also get caught in the device’s mechanism, which could ruin it altogether.
All the same, the new medium and Walkman devices were runaway successes. Mark Coleman's Playback, a history of music-listening technology, puts the rise of cassettes in stark terms: "In 1981, 100 million prerecorded cassettes were sold, and 308 million LPs. … By 1986, the numbers flipped, with 350 million cassettes sold versus 110 million LPs."
"Almost overnight, portability turned into a crucial issue for audio consumers," Coleman writes. "People now expected freedom of movement while playing back prerecorded music—or at least they demanded it as an option."
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, the peak of cassette sales in the US (measured in revenue, adjusted for inflation) came in 1988.
That year, the best-selling album was George Michael’s Faith, followed by the soundtrack of the movie Dirty Dancing. By the following year, Sony had sold 25 million Walkman units, a number that doesn't count any of the Walkman's many competitors.
The frenzy over the Walkman declined as the CD started becoming the de-facto format for music, pushing both cassettes and vinyls out of the spotlight. The improvements in sound quality and durability—along with new features like skipping tracks with the press of a button—were enough to convince customers that they needed to switch technologies.
But even though CDs were not quite as small and portable as cassettes, the revolution the Walkman brought to the world of personalized, portable listening could not be stemmed. Though listeners had to be a bit more careful so that the CD wouldn't skip, Sony's CD-playing Discman and similar devices were ubiquitous companions for commutes, vacations, and contemplative walks—that is, until the dawn of mp3 players and smart phones brought Sony's revolution to our present-day of on-demand portable listening.
Despite this new world, the cassette, and its inseparable companion the Walkman, are having a small but steady comeback decades after their first release. Revamped by the nostalgia of an era they’ve seen portrayed in books and movies, younger generations are experiencing the format in new and unique ways. Its shortcomings are embraced and even admired. The difficulty of skipping tracks isn’t seen as an inconvenience, as it allows the musician’s work to be heard in the way it was meant to be heard. The physicality of the tape, the idea of songs as objects that can be owned and consumed in a personal way, seems appealing for new music lovers.
Record labels across numerous genres, from punk to dance, are releasing far more new cassettes than in others have in recent decades, including Opal Tapes, Father/Daughter, Hausu Mountain, Burger Records, and more.
Of the many examples of artists reissuing cassettes, the recent releases by Radiohead and Björk stand out. As part of the 2017 re-release of their legendary album, OK Computer, the British band put out a bundle that included 180-grams vinyls, a book, and a cassette featuring demos and other audio experiments. Björk, meanwhile, just released her entire catalog in colorful cassettes that match each of her album’s artwork. In 2017, the soundtracks to Stranger Things and Guardians of the Galaxy were also released on cassette.
It’s possible that this cassette revival is happening because it gets to coexist with technological advancements that allow us to have an infinite music catalog available at our fingertips. An experience that may seem anachronistic for some can be enriching and made more real for many others. It’s a living testament to simpler times, when music required a bit more effort to be enjoyed. But, thanks to the Walkman, not so simple that you have to stay in one place to enjoy it.