It rocked around the clock in the 1950s, shimmied its way through the '60s and rode the new romantic wave of the '80s. Now in the 21st century, the humble jukebox has transformed into something so much more than a music system. Helen Fletcher takes a look at its journey so far and what we can expect for the future...

The ‘Nickel-in-the-Slot’ machine, which first appeared in the late 19th century, is considered to be one of the first jukeboxes to hit the market. Louis Glass and William Arnold placed a coin-operated Edison cylinder phonograph in the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco in the US. It had no amplification and people had to listen to the music using one of four listening tubes.

A box resembling something we might recognise as a jukebox today with an automatic changer system did not appear on the market until 1906 and even then it had to be wound up with the sound coming out of a horn speaker.

As the jukebox developed during the late 1920s it played an important role in the careers of ‘lower class’ blues and rockabilly musicians such as Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Roosevelt Sykes and Carl Perkins. Aside from the Chitlin Circuit, the jukebox was the only place you could hear this type of music.

The 1950s saw the introduction of the seven-inch single into the public market and it brought with it great changes for the jukebox. Its popularity continued to grow and in its heyday the jukebox provided the power to sell hundreds of records at once for artists like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.

However, times changed, technology moved on and so did the jukebox. The American jukebox that appeared in every diner of the 1950s may be the most famous and recognisable design, but if the jukebox was to survive it needed to move with the times.

CDs bring significant change

The introduction of CDs into the vinyl market in the late 1980s brought with it changes to the mechanics of the jukebox as well as the design. However, it has been the introduction of digital technology over the past decade that has brought significant changes to how jukeboxes are designed and used in locations.

Digital technology has resulted in an emphasis on computing rather than engineering and Chris Black, managing director of Sound Leisure, based in the UK, told InterGame: “Instead of simply supplying a box to be filled with CDs we also have to offer music packages. Jukeboxes can now hold much more music and can be profiled to suit the location, meaning a significant increase in revenue. They can also be used to display advertising and promotions and can quickly be adapted to be suitable for seasonal demands such as Christmas and this has moved jukeboxes into the spotlight in locations in recent years.”

Recent innovations from Sound Leisure include the Milestones in Music range of digital jukeboxes that are housed in the branded UK Top of the Pops cabinet and is endorsed by the Official UK Top 40 company.

“The jukeboxes feature every top 40 chart hit since 1952,” said Black. “Milestones in Music digital holds in excess of 30,000 tracks internally but can still be fully profiled to suit a site’s requirements. It can be operated without the need for a broadband connection and a unique search facility allows customers to see the UK’s official top 40 for any day from 1960 to the present day.”

At this year’s ATEI in London, the company took the product even further and introduced Milestones in Music Video, which is available with videos of every UK Top 10 hit since 1980.

“This constitutes more than 5,000 videos and every two weeks operators receive the new top 10 chart hit videos along with the current official audio chart,” said Black.

One thing that is clear is that there is a definite need for a “21st century look” in modern day jukeboxes as well as the requirement for easy operation, quickly accessible music and impressive sound quality, as Alex Kirby, sales manager for NSM Music told InterGame.

NSM has been in the music systems business since the early days of the 1950s and co-founders Herbert Nack, Gerhard Schulze and Wilhelm Menke revolutionised the jukebox world with its Silver range of wall boxes and free-standers such as the Fanfare Silver.

“We recently launched our third generation of digital product, in the shape of the Icon music jukebox,” said Kirby. “It is the ideal portal to a library of up to 40,000 audio and video tracks displayed on a massive 19ins screen and endowed with up to 1,200 watts of power.”

One company that has taken the music systems it offers to the next level is Almotech Ireland. It has been in the business for 25 years and in the early days supplied record and later CD jukeboxes to operators and sites throughout Ireland. The company soon became involved in full sound/lighting installations throughout Ireland.

“We became aware that there was a need for an all-in-one entertainment system, which could be used as part of larger systems and could also be used as a stand-alone system in smaller premises,” said managing director, Vivian Dooley. “It had to incorporate both audio and video and had to be able to output the video to a plasma TV on the premises if required.”

To meet this need the company designed the Mystro audio/video digital jukebox a system that also provides a background music/video system for premises where pay for play is not desirable.

One of the main reasons jukeboxes have survived the test of time is that they work well in pretty much any location as well as the element of choice and control over what music is played.

“They work particularly well in locations where the site owner or manager takes an interest in the capabilities of the technology and uses it to its best advantage,” said Black. “We have a lot of successful sites where the video screens are used to attract people to the box and create atmosphere. Obviously those sites that are popular with young people do well, but then so do some of the more traditional locations.”

Karin Scheidl of Tab Austria added: “Just as customers like to choose where to go in their spare time, they also like to choose what to hear from a jukebox and it is this choice that makes jukeboxes so successful.”

Touchscreens and features

TAB Austria was one of the first companies in 1998 to combine a touchscreen with a jukebox and in 2003 the company started to offer music video downloads for the first time. To be able to offer its customers the choice of music they demand, TAB’s digital jukebox Max Fire and its Silverball terminal with the integrated jukebox, named Silverball Max, can be connected to the company’s database that contains more than 130,000 music titles. Customers using the Max Fire jukebox also have the possibility to access the video database that contains more than 10,000 music videos.

“Recently there has been a particular trend for chart music. Customers tend to be picking tracks that are current and new releases. However, there is still a market for ‘golden oldie’ tracks,” said Rolf Neilsen, managing director of Gamestec, which has been in the market for around 40 years. The company’s digital music system, FiVE Music, offers customers the latest in downloadable content meaning up-to-date tracks are always available, which proves popular with many customers. However, the FiVE Music can also offer music profiling, meaning the music can be tailored specifically to the demands of a site’s customers.

The switch to PC-based technology has attracted a number of new entrants to the jukebox sector, illustrating that it is still a desirable market. One of the most recent entrants is UK-based company JayBox, which was launched in September last year. The company’s presence currently only stretches as far as the UK, however such is the demand for its product, there are plans to review possible export markets over the next few months.

Targeted at the 18-35 age group, the JayBox jukebox is hooked to a server allowing customers to access over 50,000 tracks, it also brings a new feature to the sector that is intended to encourage brand loyalty.

“We have included a personal playlist feature,” said Richard Elsy, marketing director for the company. “The customer can access it with the swipe of a credit or debit card on returning visits and as far as I am aware this is a feature that is exclusive to the JayBox. We also plan to introduce WiFi modems that will allow internet access to the jukebox through a WiFi mobile or laptop, allowing the customer to download tracks.

The UK pub market is facing a difficult time at the moment with the various smoking bans in Scotland and Wales and the impending ban in England on July 1 later this year. However, Elsy told InterGame that he is hopeful the JayBox will work to counteract the affect of the smoking bans. He said: “The JayBox has the style and features to attract customers, keep them in the pub longer and get them to come back again. This will really enhance the offer to licensees as the experience becomes known.”

Another company that is relatively new to the manufacturing of jukeboxes is Sound Sense, a company that has specialised in jukebox repair for more than a decade. More recently it presented a working prototype digital jukebox to the industry called the Tornado. Unique in many ways, not only is it modern, versatile and adaptable in its design, electronically, it is the first digital jukebox to support Dallas key technology.

“This provides improved reliability, due to fewer requirements for the jukebox to be opened, as many of the functions can be achieved via the Dallas key and touchscreen,” said Scott Hession. “The main advantages are separate levels of access from bar staff to licensee, to collector to engineer and so on. Each key has a 64-bit serial number improving security by generating log files on the jukebox following their use. A log file is created logging the serial numbers of any illegal attempts with foreign keys. The owner of the key used can then be traced through the manufacturer’s database.

“We were bowled over with the phenomenal interest generated by the Tornado when we showed it firstly in London at the ATEI and then again in Ireland at the AMEX show and it has spurred us on to put the box into production.”

The future

So what does the future hold for the music systems market? According to Karin Scheidl: “More and more companies will try to get into this market because the potential is very high. Therefore competition between companies will get more intense. But only the most innovative companies will assert their position.”

It is clear that manufacturers of digital jukeboxes need to keep in mind the demands of the market and with so much choice available, both operators and customers are becoming much shrewder and expect much more in return for their hard earned money. More music, more stylish cabinets, more attractive and easier to use touchscreens and fantastic sound quality are a pre-requisite now, rather than an expensive luxury.

Chris Black said: “More integrated entertainment systems within locations seem likely and as more and more products become digital it only makes sense for them to talk, react and cross promote one another.”

However, new technology comes with its problems and one major issue for a number of the established music systems companies is licensing. An NSM spokesperson said: “Many of the products do not comply with either the necessary safety standards or the necessary licensing requirements and it is evident that some licensing authorities have been reluctant to make an example of the worst offenders.”

NSM’s general manager, Martin Agaberg, added: “It is frustrating for companies such as ourselves who are completely legal. There have been prosecutions of teenagers for copying music in their bedrooms and yet there have been no high profile cases of companies selling jukeboxes with unlicensed music.”