Sony Walkman

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Historical Overview

Sony first released the Walkman personal tape player in 1978. Conceived of as an alterative to the listening practices of the “home stereo,” the Walkman represented a breakthrough in mobile listening equipment, that would allow the once large scale and public experience of listening to music to be reconceptualized on the scale of the individual listener. Accordingly, the Walkman “was originally designed for and marketed to a particular target consumer grouping: mobile, young music listeners.”(Doing Cultural Studies…, 66). Interestingly, it was both design and marketing that seemed to most notably set the Walkman apart from previous iterations of personnel listening equipment.

Design and Marketing

While the tradition of mobile audio equipment extends back to the listening practices of the car radio, with its associations of individualism and freedom, the Walkman worked to radically re-associate listening practices with the production of ‘lifestyle’(ibid). As a design object, the Walkman was meant to be unobtrusive, sleek, and above all conducive to maximal mobility. To achieve this technically the Sony design team worked tirelessly to convert the bulky audio player technology into something that “would enable people to take their music with them” (pg. 53) wherever they went. ...

Production

As we saw in the previous section, Sony conceived of the Walkman, both in terms of design and marketing, as a way to reach divers consumer groups, but as the popularity of the Walkman grew to encompass a global market Sony was forced to rethink the relatively inflexible system (hierarchical, lifetime employment) of Fordist style manufacturing. On the level of production, this meant moving away from a model of mass produced products, “where particular products were manufactured in large batches on assembly-lines that required great investment in inflexible plants”(ibid), towards embracing a new logic of production that required attention to “the combination of responsive design and visual communication with techniques of market segmentation.”(ibid) By developing the Walkman as a global ‘lifestyle’ product, Sony became the leading edge of what has now become the standard mode of “flexible” production:

linked to [then] novel forms of flexible, electronic-based automation technologies… [such] computer-based technologies and a functionally flexible labor force, it [was] common for a particular model to be available in a large number of different versions, each designed for an marketed at a distinct consumer grouping.(ibid) By embracing flexible production as a new model for integrating design, marketing, and consumption, Sony adopted a strategy for linking a diversity of previously disparate processes, from product development and production, to marketing and the introduction of the product to the market, into a seamless self generating productive loop. In the respect, the function of both design and marketing where reconceived of as “operating on the very cusp of production and consumption, attempting to stitch the two spheres together.”(pg.69). Following this model, Sony moved from the production of the original model of the Walkman in 1978, to an expansive line of hundreds of Walkman audio products that where tailored to meet the demands of a continuously shifting spectrum of consumer identities. From this perspective then, the Walkman can be understood as a productive nexus, linking together the divers employment of both symbolic and material practices into a singular ‘brand identity’ (ibid).