The Walkman, which turned 30 this month, got a nice birthday present of sorts from T3, a UK-based gearhead site that put Sony’s antediluvian gadget atop its list of the 10 “most important musical innovations of the last 50 years."
So what about the iPod? Apple’s world-dominating creation placed a mere No. 3, behind the invention of the MP3 format.
The folks at T3 note the Walkman heralded the age of portable, privately heard music – even if the first-edition, Stephen King-paperback-sized contraptions, highly coveted for years, are now laughably obsolete and clunky.
The Walkman certainly was a game changer for its time, even if the initial $200 pricetag – nearly $500 in today’s dollars – kept many out of the game for a while.
Before the Walkman, music lovers on the go lugged heavy boomboxes with cassette players, or transistor radios that played tunes chosen by a DJ. The Walkman presaged the on-demand, tune-out-the-world era – you could pick and play your own music, even if changing artists meant changing tapes (unless, of course, you made your own mix tapes – either way, there was no shuffle). Thanks to the headphones, you could listen by yourself with a minimum of distractions.
But just because the Walkman came first, does that mean it’s cast more of an influence than the iPod, which debuted in 2001 and quickly became the standard for portable music? Sony sold 50 million Walkmans in 10 years. Apple sold nearly twice as many iPods in half that time.
The view of the Walkman's place in history may be more generational than numbers driven: a 13-year-old Scottish boy recently traded his iPod for a Walkman for a week, and faced laughter from his peers, along with technical frustrations.
“I'm relieved I live in the digital age, with bigger choice, more functions and smaller devices,” the teen, Scott Campbell, wrote in a BBC article about his experiences. “I'm relieved that the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born, as I can't imagine having to use such basic equipment every day.
“Having said all that, portable music is better than no music.”
T3’s Top 10 list, which also includes the CD and Napster, is geared toward geeks and not necessarily musicians. Why, for example, didn't the Moog synthesizer make the cut?
Lists like T3’s aren’t meant, of course, to be the final word – they’re designed to get people talking, and spur debate.
Okay, so we’ll bite: What do you think is the most important musical innovation of the last half century – the Walkman, the iPod or some other gizmo?
Use the comments section below to tell us what’s music to your ears.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.