Internet jukeboxes: The end of a musical era?

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BOSTON -- The Sevens, a beer-and-wine tavern with an oak bar worn smooth by decades of drinkers, has two amenities that set it apart: a real cork dart board, and arguably one of the best jukeboxes east of the Mississippi River.

From early Bruce Springsteen and Patsy Cline to rare Rolling Stones tunes, the jukebox -- more than the darts or the dark wood benches -- sets a rollicking mood that pulls people through the door.

This spring, the tavern took a leap into the digital age with a new Internet-fueled jukebox that can access hundreds of thousands of songs.

"I love it," says James McCarthy, 39, a kitchen worker who feeds the wall-mounted machine $25 a night to keep his toes tapping behind the bar. "You can go back and forth from hearing old Aerosmith to all the sudden you'll hear C+C Music Factory to country-western."

At thousands of bars and restaurants, patrons can now listen to songs stored on hard drives or downloaded from remote servers. Some find the change a refreshing departure from the limited selection of records or CDs of old jukeboxes.

Others lament the transformation of an American icon.

They say the smaller collections of compact discs or 45s in traditional jukeboxes gave barrooms a distinct feel that gets washed away by the new technology's nearly unlimited choice and flashy screens reminiscent of video poker machines.

"I feel like you have the option to find more songs, but there's not as much personality," says Kate Nies, 26, who feeds her dollars to a traditional chrome CD jukebox in Charlie's Kitchen in Harvard Square in Cambridge.

On the high-tech models, a touch screen has replaced the window where records could be seen spinning, and there is now a slot where customers can dip credit cards.

The jukebox, which has roots in the coin-operated pianos and penny-slot photographs of the late 19th century, has come a long way over the years.

In 1934, David Rockola's vending-machine company introduced a box that offered a choice of 12 songs -- the Model A Multi-Selector spun 78s. With radio in its infancy, jukeboxes became the place to discover new music.

In the 1950s, the production of smaller 45-speed records bumped the number of songs a jukebox could play to 100. Then the arrival of compact discs pushed the capacity up over 1,000 in the 1980s.

While the selections grew, individual jukeboxes retained their unique flavor, says John Papa, owner of the National Jukebox Exchange in Mayfield, N.Y., which sells and restores classics.

"Even 1,000 songs created a certain feel in a room that a jukebox with 400,000 songs can't replace," Papa says. "People get used to that particular jukebox. They know that B3 sticks every once in a while. They know that J4 is their favorite song."

Montreal-based TouchTunes Music has supplied 17,000 digital jukeboxes across the U.S. -- and provides access to a digital library of a million songs through a dial-up or broadband Internet connection.

Nostalgia has its place, but music fans demand more, says John Taylor, president of San Francisco-based Ecast, which supplies the software and provides music for 6,000 jukeboxes entirely over broadband Internet connections.

"The 100-CD jukebox maps the old world," says Taylor, whose company sells 300 new Internet jukeboxes a month. "Our products meet what young people want today."

Jukebox makers -- such as Rock-Ola -- build machines that house the Ecast technology, from sleek wall models to classics that look like something Arthur Fonzarelli would have elbowed on the sitcom "Happy Days."

The contemporary Ecast models are like wall-mounted iPods, with high-resolution screens that flash with advertisements as customers use their fingers to troll for tunes. Inside each machine is a hard drive loaded with up to 300 albums and costing an average of 50 cents per song, with owners setting their own prices.

For a few more credits, patrons connect to the Internet to download a track from Ecast's digital library from servers in Sunnyvale, Calif., that hold more than 18,000 albums. More quarters allow customers to jump their turn in line so their songs play next.

Charles Krupa, Associated Press
Bartender James McCarthy selects music from a new digital jukebox at The Sevens pub on Charles Street in Boston.
Click photo for larger image.


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