Ghosts in the machine

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"The music is just something added. Nobody goes to a club to play a CD. If I want to hear a CD, I'll stay home to hear it. With vinyl, it marks a certain era, but now it's gone."

In William Bunch's 1994 book Jukebox America, which documents a romantic's three-year cross-country search for the last great jukebox, the author lists the three phases of the machine's existence: the novelty years (from the first time a box was placed in a bar, in San Francisco in 1889), the glory years (from 1927, when the electric amplifier was first invented and speakeasies began searching for cheap entertainment, through 1937, when more than half a million boxes were scattered throughout the country), and the peak-and-descent years (now, there are only 230,000 boxes in use in America, almost half being CD jukeboxes with the number growing every week).

There are several reasons for the disappearance of the vinyl jukebox--all of which point to CDs as the logical answer, at least from the industry perspective. Probably the most obvious answer is quantity: on average, a vinyl jukebox holds 100 singles, which comes out to 200 songs. Some CD jukeboxes can hold as many as 100 discs and with most discs holding between 11 and 14 tracks, that's more than five times the song selection.

But, as Bunch points out, the perception that you've got a larger choice of songs is actually "a sham."

"The jukeboxes of the 1930s and 1940s, with their 78s of Louis Jordan or Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, were subversive affairs," Bunch writes, "playing regional songs that the Toscanini-crazed record executives in New York wanted to ignore. Today, CD jukeboxes are geared toward record-label megastars such as Tom Petty, Michael Bolton, and Guns N' Roses, while indie-label CDs are squeezed out of the mix. If there had been CD jukeboxes in 1954, who would have heard Elvis Presley singing 'That's All Right, Mama'?"

Indeed, the CD jukebox has led to the death of the jukebox. Walk into the Elm Street Bar some night and you'll hear the damage done, especially when someone has clogged up an hour by playing a Rage Against the Machine disc from front to back.

With CD jukeboxes, there's always the chance someone can tie the damned thing up playing an entire album's worth of the Smiths, Tom Petty, Whitney Houston, or the Beastie Boys. There's simply less diversity, less spontaneity, less passion emanating from a CD jukebox. You may find more songs on a CD jukebox, but it's doubtful you'd ever hear a song emanating from the sterile beast that you couldn't walk into your local record chain and buy for 15 bucks.

And then there's the matter of sound quality. Walking into a bar with a CD jukebox is like walking into a room with stagnant air, the pop and crack of vinyl replaced with...nothing at all. The cold sterility of the CD, which has long been an argument used by opponents of the digital technology, never seems more obvious than when it comes from a jukebox. It is the difference between the roaring fire of vinyl and the electric log of the CD, technology making music more accessible but sapping it of its warmth.

But, as Horton points out by bending a reissued Hank Williams single till it nearly snaps in two, the more recent vinyl 45s are thin and brittle, their grooves easily worn out by repeated playing. Sometimes, the jukebox needle will skip incessantly, which irritates patrons; often, the stylus will fall off the record completely.

For bars and restaurants not catering to a nostalgic crowd, opting instead to play the Top 40, vinyl jukeboxes are simply impractical. Though scores of small independent labels (such as Sub Pop in Seattle or Dallas' own Direct Hit) release seven-inch singles every month--which begs the question, Why no indie-rock jukebox in Deep Ellum?--major labels have long ceased manufacturing anything but newer country singles on vinyl.

Both Warner Bros. and Sony Music have begun releasing some hit singles from the likes of R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Madonna, but it's too little way too late. There's little point in replacing one hit with another by the same artist when all can be found on a single CD.

"The places that had vinyl jukeboxes now want CD because all the new music is on CD, unless you have some place that is tailored to some kind of an era, like the '50s," Costa says. "With jukeboxes you think of 'Happy Days' and the arm picking up the record and placing it down, and that's neat and nostalgic.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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