The Jukebox Story: Just a Flat Screen on the Wall

There is precious little chance that you are going to walk into a casual restaurant or diner today and find a jukebox sitting at the end of your booth or table. Scrolling through the choices was always a great way to entertain yourself while waiting for your food. And waiting for your songs to play helped prolong a leisurely meal.

The jukebox is not nearly as prevalent as it was in its roughly two-decades long heyday starting in the late 1940’s. But it hasn’t gone away either. If you’re a collector you can find yourself a classic Wurlitzer that has been refurbished. You might have to drop $20,000 for that. At the other end of the spectrum you can buy a table-top digital jukebox to drop on your mantle for about $150 and then use it to play the music stored on your phone.

Jukeboxes first became popular in bars, although at the time they might have been called saloons or speakeasies or juke joints. They expanded their reach to diners, restaurants, soda fountains, even drugstores and laundromats. Now they’re mostly back where they started, in bars. 

If you’re a bar-owner and you’re thinking about a juikebox, there are two ways you can go. You can look backward, or you can look forward. Some bars have opted for the classic jukebox, the big flashy chrome and lights cabinet with the big speakers and the big sound. But more have switched to the digital jukebox which may not look like much more than a touch screen hanging on the wall. 

Two new jukeboxes represent the two different types you’ll find in today’s bars: The Rock-Ola Bubbler Vinyl 45 and the TouchTunes Angelina.

Rock-Ola bills itself as “America’s last authentic jukebox.” It’s history supports that claim. They been building jukeboxes since 1927. Rock-Ola was one of what was known as the big four jukebox manufacturers. It is the last one standing.

The company’s most recent model, the Bubbler Vinyl 45 is a testament to that legacy. While more modern jukeboxes switched from vinyl to CD’s or DVD’s, the Bubbler houses 45’s, 100 of them. Played on two sides that produces 200 song choices. Exactly like the jukeboxes in the 50’s. (Although the Bubbler can also bring in music via Bluetooth.)

The new Rock-Ola machine also reflects the design standards of an earlier era. It has a die-cast metal grille and eight light-up bubble tubes. It retails for $9,295.

While Rock-Ola is the largest manufacturer of classic jukeboxes, TouchTunes is the leader when it comes to digital jukeboxes. You may remember the Joan Jett song in which she sang “put another dime in the jukebox, baby.” (I Love Rock and Roll) Well if it was a TouchTunes jukebox, that line might have been more like “put another ten on the credit card, baby.”

You “play” these digital jukeboxes by going to the TouchTunes app on your phone. You never have to leave your bar seat. You can get 12 credits for $5, 24 credits for $10. Or you can be ‘that guy’ and buy even more. The app works with a location tracker so, unless you’re a hacker, you can’t juke bomb the bar across town. 

The latest TouchTunes model, the Angelina, takes up just 24 inches of vertical wall space. It offers something called a wall wash light show that is triggered by the music. Technically it offers modular, removable components.

The promotional blurb on the TouchTunes web site offers the following:  “Music is core to the TouchTunes experience and our latest smart jukebox allows the interface to learn from the music most played in a location and adapt over time to highlight the songs, artists and search results that are most relevant.  Our leading mobile app lets users find nearby jukebox locations and control their in-venue music experience from their smartphones. Since launch, the app has been downloaded over 8 million times. Also available on the jukebox is our integrated photo booth solution and a first fully licensed commercial karaoke system.”

There are some 65,000-75,000 TouchTunes systems installed. They are cheaper (you can’t spend more than maybe $2,500 on a digital system), they’re easier to maintain, and they offer more music choices. But not everyone is a fan.

In an article in the Atlantic with the headline “Digital Jukeboxes Are Eroding the Dive-Bar Experience,” Lauren Michele Jackson writes “TouchTunes erodes the premise of quaint regionalism as bars of all kinds transform into Top 40 danceries.” writer Dan McQuade offers a similar lament: “The soundtrack of every bar is slowly becoming the same.”

And Fast Company’s John Paul Titlow adds this concern: “Put this thing on my phone and get a couple cocktails in me, and I’ll be blowing through my hard-earned disposable income in no time.”

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4 Responses to The Jukebox Story: Just a Flat Screen on the Wall

  1. I have no need to buy a jukebox … although, now that I think about it … I could be the only Yoga studio in America with my own Bubbler! I loved this post. I love how the jukebox industry is reaching into technology while trying to stay retro. You could write about jukeboxes every day and I would read every word!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Henry Lewis says:

    I’ll take a classic Wurlitzer please. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pam Lazos says:

    Did you see this? The jukebox starts at about 16 minutes in. ;0)


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