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Bar loyalists bemoan the rise of the Internet jukebox

on September 26, 2009

The man with a shaggy beard and half-rimmed glasses had been standing in front of the Internet jukebox for some five minutes already, fussing with the bright buttons and typing impatiently at the touch screen. He turned to his friends at the table.

“I can’t find crap in this thing,” he said, pointing to the Internet jukebox, which looked sort of like a brightly colored ATM machine.

It was Thursday night – or “little Friday,” as barflies call it – at Geo Kaye’s in the Temescal, and the small, dark bar was starting to fill up. The bartender was handing a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon to a tattoo-sleeved woman, while the tap filled up another pitcher. A group of cyclists in tight pants carried their fixed-gears inside, stepping over the old Boxer asleep in the mat in front of the bar, and parked their bikes by the lavatories. Another small dog (the “kind of dog you see in Velasquez paintings” the bar owner explained) was perched on top of the bar, daintily avoiding the drinks as he went from customer to customer in search of attention. Above the bar, a portrait of young Louis Armstrong holding a trumpet smiled over the scene.

Internet Jukebox at Geo Kaye's bar

Internet Jukebox at Geo Kaye’s bar

By the time the bearded man finished programming his five dollars’ worth of credit into the jukebox, the machine was already halfway through playing his first selection, a live version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” He walked to the bar slowly, scowling at the contraption. He was unhappy with the particular version of the song, recorded at a reunion concert during the British metal band’s failed attempt at a comeback.

“Ozzy’s voice is so flat it’s awful,” he said, with a grimace, while he waited for a beer.

He hadn’t been able to find the original version, he said, because he couldn’t really understand how the machine worked. In fact, he couldn’t even figure out if he had accessed the online database or not.

Unlike old-fashioned jukeboxes, Internet jukeboxes don’t contain records or CDs. They work more like oversized and amplified iPods, selecting from a pre-stored assortment of digital songs. Or if you’re willing to pay more, they can search for more online — which is not always as easy as it sounds.

The next song in the grumpy bearded man’s selection (Black Flag’s punk rock anthem “Rise Against”) cheered him up some, but he was still so frustrated he was unable to discuss the merits of the Internet jukebox phenomenon. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, nodding his head toward the object of discord.

He’s not the only one who’s upset, and others are certainly talking about it. On music blogs, on bar reviews on the web site Yelp, and at the bars themselves, Bay Area bar-goers are complaining about the new machines.


Yet Internet jukeboxes are an overwhelming financial success, and over the last few years they have all but completely driven out their mechanical predecessors from the Bay area. How can that be?

Geo Kaye's bar

Geo Kaye’s bar

David Biddle, owner of Geo Kays, said both have been true in the case of his establishment since he decided to follow what he called the “inevitable technological change” and replace his old CD-based jukebox with an Internet model a year ago.

Yelp users had once rated his old CD jukebox one of the best in the East Bay: online eulogies to the late machine ranged from the hyperbolic  (“from Tenacious D to Sinatra to…Opera?”) to the nostalgic (“the kind of box that ultimately leads to playing the same songs most times you come in, but that the tunes are so good that you don’t care — and you hope nobody else does, either.”)

The online reaction against the change was visceral. One post called Kaye’s new jukebox a “great big, bright, expensive modern monstrosity.” Another was more succinct: “The new Internet jukebox needs to go.”

The vitriol doesn’t bother Biddle, the fast-talking, impeccably dressed Los Angeles native who has been running Kaye’s since 1995. “People complain, but if you measure by their actions, you’ll see that they play it a lot more,” he said one recent afternoon, as he washed glasses and checked bottles in preparation for the night’s crowd. And it’s not just that they spend more money because the new music machines are more expensive — according to Biddle, his customers actually play more songs since he went online. “Given more choice, people will just play it more,” he said.

The object of discord

The object of discord

Indeed, the Internet Jukebox offers more choice. The machines’ physical memories can hold only about one hundred albums, more or less the size of the collection that would be contained in a CD jukebox. However, for a small fee you’re invited to access its much larger online database. “Can’t find it?” the machine asks. “Search all music.”

Search all music! It’s an enticing proposition, even when you realize it doesn’t really mean ‘all the music in the world, ever’ but rather ‘all the music to which this particular distributor has the rights.’ It is still an immense amount of music, so much so that part of the fun is searching for songs the machine can’t find.

Online, the scope of this choice radically changes the way one searches for songs. Instead of browsing the available selections, as you would with a traditional jukebox, you have to type the first letters of the artist or the song you’re looking for. It’s like the difference between shopping at a supermarket and shopping online — you have to know what you want beforehand.

And with the Internet jukebox, the number of possible song combinations is so tremendous that by end of any given night, in any given bar, the playlist may sound like a tribute to postmodernity, or like the proverbial thousand monkeys trying to write the next great novel. And not everybody likes it.

In fact, one of the main arguments against the Internet jukebox is that by giving all bars equal access to the same enormous music archive, it threatens to replace each particular bar’s culture, in which music plays a defining role, with a musically homogenous culture in which every bar is supposed to be everything to everybody.

Diana Krell, a bartender at Rockridge’s Ye Old Hut, fiercely opposes Internet jukeboxes for that very reason. “I think it’s impossible to create atmosphere when there are so many options,” she said one afternoon, as she sat on the drinking side of the bar (it was her day off), downing a popular hangover cure made with Jägermeister and Guinness stout.

There was no music playing in the large and cool bar that afternoon. The bar’s jukebox — an Internet model mounted on the wall— sat unused on a corner by the restrooms.

Krell said some of the bar’s most beloved qualities – like the fact it is “dark and nondescript” — are undermined by the fact that customers can destroy the somber, hard-drinking atmosphere of the place by playing cheesy music. “People can come here and play effing Britney Spears,” she said, disgustedly.

Amanda Lynch, the bartender on duty, took a shot of the same concoction her friend was having, and summarized her opinion on the matter. “It sucks,” she said.

Lynch was particularly incensed by the fact that for an extra $2.50, Internet jukeboxes allow a user to skip everybody else’s selections and move one’s song to the head of the queue. Skipping the other people’s songs can be very tempting, and there are nights when it must seem almost justifiable, particularly if the bar is filled with extravagant drunks with no taste in music and when you spent minutes finding an obscure track to impress your friends. At Ye Old Hut, Lynch said this has caused some bad blood among customers. She said she doesn’t believe people should be allowed to “financially override somebody else” in this manner. “It’s not just,” she said.

Scott Thill, editor of the online culture magazine and writer of the late “Listening Post” blog on, says the opposition to Internet jukeboxes can be summed up in a word: “It’s nostalgia, which the East Bay is big on, as is most of the world,” he said. “It’s a kind of purism, although most people these days listening to net jukes probably aren’t really old enough to remember the real ones.”

Having an old-style jukebox “bestows a kind of cultural cachet on the bar, and helps create a scene, which is always important for putting bodies in seats,” Thill says.

But at Geo Kaye’s, owner David Biddle doesn’t miss his old machine, a CD jukebox for which he has zero nostalgia. “The old phonograph jukeboxes had cachet,” he said. “But CDs are a transitional technology that nobody cares about.”

Biddle said he believes that the resistance to the Internet jukes among younger customers is explained by a kind of delusional romanticizing of the past. “People romanticize about the Old West,” he said. “But you wouldn’t want to live there.”


Wurlitzer Americana model at the Hotsy Totsy Club

Wurlitzer Americana model at the Hotsy Totsy Club

Ye Old Hut was one of the first bars in Oakland area to adopt an Internet jukebox, at a time when the machines were little more than digital curiosities. Now the balance is reversed, and one is pressed to find a jukebox that plays vinyl or CDs.

Bars that resist the digital age have become musical curiosities, like the Hotsy Totsy Club on San Pablo Avenue. When owner Michael Valladres took over the vintage Albany bar last year, one of the first orders of business was to replace the bar’s Internet jukebox.

The Hotsy Totsy— which the owner is quick to point is an attempt at “historical re-creation” and not a “theme bar” – is a truly old-fashioned joint: you can get the bartender to make you a Negroni (a very bitter drink made with Dry Vermouth Campari and gin),  vodka isn’t allowed near Martinis, and even the lavatories are retro (in the men’s room there are black and white nude photos of women with strange hairdos, and the women’s carries an operational Modess machine that sells tampons for a dime.)

Here, the music only comes out of two sources: an iPod, and a 1967 Wurlitzer Americana 3100 model that Valladres bought online from a jukebox repair hobbyist. The Americana still caries a small sign with the old prices (7 plays for half a dollar, 1 play for a dime) but it plays for free at the Hotsy Totsy. The green and red machine is boxy like an old washing machine, and near the buttons on top there is a little hole through which you can peek at the illuminated interior and see the disks going around and around like in carrousel.

The hundred 45 rpm discs constantly rotating in the Americana were hand-picked by Valladres and his friends from the more than eight hundred disks he acquired through donations in a Facebook drive. Their titles read like a lesson in obscure Anglo pop music from the 1950s to the late 70s. On the L4 slot, for example you find “I’m A Hog for You,” by the American R&B group The Coasters, who had a string of hits in the late 50s. Slot M4 holds Jamaican reggae legend Desmond Decker’s “Fu Manchu”. On J9, Herb Alpert sings “Lonely Bull.” To keep the selection fresh, new discs are added every other week.

Valladres, a 40 year old man with rockabilly sideburns who is, by his own account, a “bit of a music snob,” said the jukebox’s selection is intentionally obscure. “For people who love music, it’s a little treasure,” he said.

He described the whole project as “a very selfish endeavor,” adding that his main incentive for starting the bar in the first place was that he was tired of going to bars and “listening to the hits of the day with people ten years younger than me.”

One recent evening the machine was playing a strange R&B version of The Beatles’ “Come Together” by a woman whose voice sounded intensely familiar.

The Wurlitzer Americana's selection

The Wurlitzer Americana’s selection

“Who sang that?” a man sitting by the bar asked when the song was over.

“Tina Turner,” the bartender said at once, as if she had been waiting for the question.

“That was amazing,” the customer said.

“Yeah, it kicks the Beatles’ version’s ass,” the bartender said.

Above the plush, cushioned leather bar, an old pharmacy sign in red and white read: “prescriptions sold here.”

The bartender poured a light green drink onto a tall glass and handed it to one of her ‘patients.’ Then she walked around the bar to tend to the jukebox.

The machine began to play James Brown’s funk classic “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.” This time, it was the original version.


1950 Seeburg model at Oh Sole Mio

1950 Seeburg model at O’ Sole Mio restaurant

One day back in 1964, when rock’n’roll was young and the Internet still a sci-fi dream, Private First Class Ron Rich was sitting at a cafe in the northern Italian city of Vicenza, watching the large man who owned the place struggle with a broken jukebox. Rich, who had come close to completing a course in TV and radio at a San Francisco trade school before joining the Army, volunteered to help and, despite the Italian’s incredulity, quickly fixed the machine. Instead of thanks, the café owner offered him a string of keys to his other establishments where more ailing jukeboxes awaited. Rich didn’t hesitate. A few hours later he was back at the café.

Almost half a century later, sitting on a stool at the cluttered, smoke-filled garage in Milbrae where he has spent the last forty years servicing jukeboxes, Rich recalled his initiation to his life trade with the richness of detail and the touch of invention that comes from years of retelling the same story: “When I got back after fixing all the machines, I put my hand out and asked ‘Where’s my money?’ And he said ‘What money?’ ‘You should have taken the money from the cash box.’ So I snatched the keys from him and went back and took the money,” Rich said, his eyes lighting up as he laughed a low, gravely laughter that dissipated into a guttural cough.

A 1989 Rowe AMi jukebox (the first model ever to play CDs) that Rich had rigged up to skip at random between four albums was playing The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.” Two older, vinyl-based jukeboxes in the shop were so covered up with brick-a-brack that they were almost unrecognizable.

After clearing a path among the manuals, cables, old boards, voltmeters and tools, Rich inserted a 45 rpm record into one of the older machines, a 1977 Seeburg. The song “Hold on Tight” by the 1970’s group Electric Light Orchestra (recently made famous after Honda used it in an ad) filled up the garage. “This is one of my favorite songs right now,” Rich said, adding that he had to ask a British friend to send him a 45 copy because they are impossible to find in the US.

To prove the quality of the jukebox’s sound, Rich turned up the volume almost all the way. The sound was indeed good, but a loose part within the machine was creating a metallic rattle every time the bass line came up. Rich could not hear it. This man who has dedicated most of his working life to the repair of mechanical musical devices was born tone deaf; there’s a whole range of sound his ears simply do not recognize. As a child, he said, he sometimes could not understand his own mother. The hereditary condition has worsened with age. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “You couldn’t know it unless you have it.”

Of the old machines he owns that are still in operation in the Bay Area, Rich is particularly proud of a 1950 Seeburg currently playing out of an Italian restaurant in downtown Milbrae, the first model to play 45 rpm discs, which were lighter and had better sound quality than the 72 rpm predecessors. The machine sits at the entrance of the restaurant O’ Sole Mio like a Cadillac parked in a suburban development, all chrome and square fake wood panels. When you press the buttons engraved with numbers and letters, you can feel the inner mechanism activate, and the palm-sized black disk flipping into the playing bed. A quarter buys you two songs.

Table sized jukeboxes at Oh Sole Mio

Table sized jukeboxes at O’ Sole Mio

The restaurant’s owner, John Hizy, said a good part of his clientele comes for the American and Italian standards playing out of the Seeburg, though it may be truer to say they come for the atmosphere created by the music coming out a machine in precisely the same way it did 50 years ago. Nostalgia brings in the older crowd, he said. But as for what it is that attracts young people to the jukebox, many of whom “have never even seen a record,” Hizy is at a loss to explain. “For young people, I don’t know if it’s because it’s cool,” he said. “I think it’s more of a curiosity.”

Half-retired now, Rich only services a handful of jukeboxes in the Bay Area. But he remembers the golden years for his business during the late 70s and early 80s, when he owned and serviced almost one hundred jukeboxes, along with cigarette machines and video games throughout the state and made more money than he knew what to do with.

Then the first home video games came along, at the same time that the bar culture started to change in the area. People started to stay at home more often. Besides, Rich said, it has always been hard to justify raising the price in a jukebox, even when all it meant was adjusting it for inflation. “I remember when a song used to cost a nickel,” he said. “But back then a Coke also cost a nickel.”

Companies made sure they kept up with the production of new models, even though most of these “new” models were not different than their predecessors, except for the outside shell. “It’s a psychological thing,” Rich said. “Change the cosmetics and you justify raising the price.”

Rich adapted his jukebox fleet to the CD age, but when the Internet jukeboxes came along in the mid-2000s, he decided he’d had enough change. He felt he was too old to learn the technology. Besides, he said, the music downloaders (he refuses to call them jukeboxes, arguing that, by law, the term refers only to mechanical music reproduction devices) don’t really need anyone to service them. “There is nothing to fix,” he said. “There is nothing mechanical anymore.”


The selection at The Graduate's CD-based jukebox

The selection at The Graduate’s CD-based jukebox

Across the bay, one of the few jukeboxes Rich still occasionally services is a CD model at The Graduate, a bar on the corner of Claremont and College avenues. One dollar buys you three songs there, and for five bucks you get twenty plays. If you don’t care for what the machine has to offer — its selection ranges from Fleetwood Mac to Dr. Dre, by the way of Motorhed and Patsy Cline — you may direct your complaints to Blaise Breidenback, the 25-year-old musician who works behind the bar and programs the juke.

The bar was so quiet one early Monday evening that the handful of guys who sat in front of their first pints eating popcorn (served gratis, one of the bar’s trademarks) looked startled when the dissonant chords from a wah-wah guitar emerged from the jukebox. It was a song by Os Mutantes, a psychedelic 1970’s Brazilian band that has achieved cult status among a new generation of American music lovers.

“This is one of my records I brought from home,” Breidenback said, fixing his shoulder-length black hair behind his ears. It was the end of his shift, and he was counting the cash register for the next bartender. “Technically, I could get in trouble for this one.” Technically he could. If you follow the law by the letter, you’re supposed to have the reproduction rights to every song playing in a jukebox. But he didn’t look too worried.

Two years ago, when Breidenback started working as a bartender at the Graduate, nobody paid much attention to the jukebox. As a musician, he felt it was his duty to take over. Breindenback has been approached several times by Internet jukebox distributors over the past two years, but he has made a  personal quest of keeping them away. “If I go into a bar and they have the Internet jukebox, I don’t even bother,” he said.

Breidenback likes the physical element of the old machines, the fact that you can browse through the selection, whereas with the Internet jukebox you have to “be looking for something in particular.” He also likes the patron interaction he gets with the old machine. “I can talk to the customers, and ask them what they want to hear,” he said.

 Jukebox at The Graduate

Jukebox at The Graduate

By now, the jukebox was playing David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” A sleepy-looking man with a gray ponytail unexpectedly burst into song when the chorus came on. “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues,” he sang, in unison with Bowie, before quietly resuming watching TV. Nobody at the bar noticed it.

Braidenback said he tries to keep a selection that is both varied and representative of the bar and its patrons (though he confessed that there is “stuff in there” he’s probably the only one who listens to) because he thinks the music matters to the bar’s character.

A tall customer sitting at the bar overheard, and nodded his head in agreement. “The juke selection is a representation of the bar,” he said with authority, introducing himself as Jonas Osmond, a half-Dutch comedian and English as a second language teacher.

A quick wit with a black and white straw hat covering a mane of blond hair, Osmond said he enjoys the kind of interactions the Graduate’s jukebox elicits. He walked over to the jukebox and put on an instrumental version of “It’s Your Thing,” by the Isley Brothers. A funky bass line filled the room. A few weeks before, Osmond said with a touch of pride in his voice, “I played this song and the bartender, who usually doesn’t say much, he turns to me and said: ‘Nice, dude — nobody ever plays that song.’”

If this were a bar with an Internet jukebox, Breidenback’s comment would have simply meant a double tipping of the hat – to Osmond for playing that particular song, and to himself for recognizing, and enjoying, it. People do compliment each other’s selections all the time, both in digital and old-fashioned settings.

But it was the fact that it was Breidenback who decided to include that song in the jukebox’s selection in the first place that made his compliment memorable to Osmond. Part of the pleasure of playing songs in a well-selected jukebox is that, if you get the approval from the selector, it feels like secret handshake, a welcome to the good taste in music society – at least in that particular music scene. And you can’t get that with the Internet jukeboxes.

Osmond chalks the Internet jukebox phenomenon up to a larger trend in American society in which people “do things quickly and expect instant gratification.” But, he said, having instant access to your heart’s desire is not always a good thing — a certain amount of restriction can be the antidote to unlimited boredom. “More is not necessarily better,” he said, adjusting the straw hat. “There is something to be said about not getting what you want all the time.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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