How Mobile Music Became the Norm

With the advent of smart(er) phones and tiny mp3 players, there is ample opportunity to listen to music when you are away from home, wherever you are. In fact, we are quickly approaching a time when everyone will have access to “music on the move” whether they choose to listen or not. If you get a new phone these days, unless you make a concerted effort, it will more than likely come with a media player. You can then add tunes from your PC (so-called side loading), download mp3’s you can purchase or stream music to the device. And the chances are that you didn’t even get the phone with music in mind.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this – I remember a time when deciding to take your music “on the road” with you was a bit of a chore and made you stand out as a bit “different”.

I got my first Walkman (great branding that – it wasn’t a Sony Walkman of course, they were far too expensive for me, it was a clone) when I was about 13. For younger readers, it may seem a bit weird now, but these were essentially portable tape players. They became pretty small in to the early 1990’s, but fundamentally couldn’t get any smaller than the media you played on them, i.e. cassette tapes. Still, they were small enough to put in a coat pocket. They came with headphones. Yes, “head” phones. In-ear? not invented. These headphones consisted of two rather large foam-covered speakers held together with a piece of aluminium that, erm, went over your head. This made you stand out a bit. Another limitation was that you had to carry around the tapes you wanted to play. Not your 40,000 songs on your iPod – an album per tape was the norm, unless you made up a compilation (which, to add a bit of variety, almost everyone did). Then the device had to be powered. Charged via the mains? Nope – with batteries that didn’t last more than a couple of weeks of pretty light playing.

So, you see, there were obstacles to mobile music back then – but to us it still seemed revolutionary. It didn’t matter that the music was bathed in “hiss” (if you had Dolby B or C “noise reduction” or chrome or metal tapes (I’m not making this up!) the hiss was reduced a bit.) Or that the tape could get eaten up and mangled by the player at any time. Or that you couldn’t skip tracks (that hadn’t been invented either). Or that if you left the tape in the sun, or in a car, or actually anywhere where it could get hot, you ruined the music. Or that if you actually walked with a “Walkman” the music used to “judder” due to the unit being moved. Or that the headphones usually stopped working after about three months of use. Oh no, this was amazing stuff. If you were lucky or rich, your Walkman (clone) would have mysterious switches – Dolby B and C as mentioned above and one to choose the type of tape you were playing – metal, chrome or “normal” (imagine a marketing exec ALLOWING a version of a product to be labelled “normal” these days). Some, even had graphic equalisers, which were sort of a nerd’s revenge – fundamentally sliders that altered the bass and treble of the music that were labelled with unbelievably complex “frequency information” that no one understood.

The Walkman evolved, of course – it was superseded by the Discman – the same concept, but with Compact Discs. This was a little like taking the wheel and making it 50p shaped. carrying tapes around was annoying. Carrying CDs? Well, I didn’t see many with Discmans….

I would love to know how many people listen to music on the go now and how many had Walkmans back in the day. I assume that the benefits of the iPod and like have enticed millions that never would have put up with all the kerfuffle of owning a Walkman. And, as mentioned at the start of this post, smartphones have made music on the go just another add-on.

Still, the  enjoyment of listening to some crap 80’s music on a Walkman did give you a sense of achievement – even if you did stand out.

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