Essential Jukebox Qualities

February 15, 2008 by

An expanded version of the following post appeared in the April 2008 issue of Playmeter magazine, a trade journal for the coin-operated amusement industry.

If you’re involved with music, check out a site called digitalmusicnews.com. Read their top stories and you’ll see that there is a vicious, blood-thirsty battle being waged over how music will be delivered to us and how the interested parties will get paid. Now that jukeboxes are beginning to go digital, they are just a tiny part of this vast commodity market. And keep in mind that digital music is in its formative years; formats will likely change before a standard is established.

How can the jukebox distinguish itself in this cutthroat world of music overload? I believe there are two unique qualities of the jukebox that have established it as an icon of American culture: compelling designs and unique features. Our industry may have lost sight of these qualities in its rush to embrace an evolving technology and an uncertain business model.

Industrial design has always been a vital part of the jukebox music experience. Jukeboxes have a presence in a location and strongly influence its decor and vibe. The Wurlitzer 1015 “Bubbler” is still the undisputed standard-bearer of jukebox industrial design. One of my personal favorite designs is the extremely rare “Yellow Submarine” model that Rock-Ola made to honor the Beatles’ beloved cartoon feature film.

Today, the jukebox business is more about selling music and software and less about noteworthy design. I recall jukebox legend Glen Streeter remarking that he didn’t want Rock-Ola to be a software company. “I want to build jukeboxes,” he told me. Another jukebox luminary, my colleague Joel Friedman, echoed Streeter’s sentiments. “The AMOA Expo used to be built around the introduction of new jukeboxes. Manufacturers have gotten away from the glitz and glamor of design. The jukebox has become a glorified radio station. Have jukebox manufacturers forgotten to manufacture jukeboxes?”

In the early 1990’s, the industry was in the process of making a wholesale shift from vinyl 45-rpm records to compact discs. The new machines were revolutionary in their incorporation of album cover art into their designs. The sexy new technology and the innovative new graphic element fueled a jukebox renaissance. Sales soared and jukeboxes were welcomed into new upscale locations.

Today’s new machines, while technologically advanced, lack a compelling design aesthetic. They tend to have the sterile feel of an ATM, with serviceable and dull cabinets. Their touch screens don’t have the tactile intimacy of buttons and they’ve lost the captivating mechanical element of whirring gears and spinning discs. In a world increasingly dominated by computers, we want our jukeboxes to be warm and inviting with a friendly glow of nostalgia.

Despite their industrial design shortcomings, one of the great promises of digital machines is their potential to harness new technology to enhance the jukebox experience. A good example is TouchTunes’ online affinity network, mytouchtunes, that allows users to create and share playlists. But for the most part, the digital jukeboxes available in the US have very similar software platforms, user interfaces and graphic themes. It seems that much of the technology being integrated is in the interest of gathering information about people in order to sell their eyeballs to advertisers.

At ATEI I was introduced to an intriguing new jukebox feature. I visited with Simon Davis, whose company, Soundnet, is a music provider to digital jukeboxes in the UK and Europe. Soundnet has developed a new proprietary technology they call Trackdial that allows customers to select and pay for jukebox tracks using a mobile phone. The technology delivers all the facilities of the jukebox via a WAP-based mobile phone interface. WAP stands for “Web application protocol,” and it enables access to the Internet from a mobile phone or PDA (think Windows Mobile). Customers can play the machine from areas currently not served by a coin slot such as sitting, smoking and even in the rest room. Mobile selection allows for multiple simultaneous users, as opposed to one person at a time in front of the machine. No cash is required, as all plays are charged to the customer’s mobile phone bill.

Davis talked about how Trackdial can enhance the unique character of a location. “One of the great things about Trackdial is that it can be personalized to the pub, bar or club. Not only will customers receive a message to welcome them and inform them about the service, Soundnet can also create venue-specific track selections to maintain the familiar feel of the location and drive music sales and footfall.”

Trackdial also allows customers to purchase tracks and ring tones that are delivered directly to their mobile phone. This could well become an attractive jukebox feature in the US, as labels continue to look for new ways to deliver legal, paid downloads to music fans.

Jukebox music is an event shared by people. We can listen to our favorite song as often as we’d like on our headphones, but we are drawn to share music with the communities of people at our local taverns. New digital jukeboxes need to do more than increase revenues; they need to inspire people and encourage a greater number of plays. In our tech-savvy digital world, pay-per-play location music can do a better job of distinguishing itself from the seemingly limitless noise pollution in our lives. Bringing digital technology into the jukebox world is inevitable, but let’s make sure that it has the soul that we love about vintage jukes. In a world of iPod nights, 120-gig hard drives and satellite radio, let’s not forget the importance of compelling industrial design and cool features that enhance the shared experience of jukebox music. As Joel Friedman says, “Remember, a jukebox must be a jukebox first.”

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