Digital jukebox ditches platters

In tune: A new version of the popular music machine stores its songs on a hard drive for instant access.

April 05, 1999|By Henry J. Holcomb | Henry J. Holcomb,Knight Ridder/Tribune

There's a new jukebox in town that plays more tunes than most but has no records or CDs inside.

It is the most significant advance in coin-operated music players since the compact disc replaced vinyl 45s.

Because music is stored on a 4.5-gigabyte computer hard drive, it can be programmed to do things that had been difficult or impossible without the computer.

In December, they will offer a selection of Christmas carols.

When a new tune shoots up the charts, it can be added to the menu overnight. If a customer wants special music for a party, that, too, could be added.

These new machines were developed jointly by TouchTunes Digital Jukeboxes Inc., a start-up company based in Montreal, and speaker manufacturer Bose Corp. Other companies are working on digital models that will be introduced over the next few years.

"I love this thing, and part of the reason I love it is its potential," said Michael Whitsen. He and his brother, Alan, run U-Neek Enterprises, an Ambler, Pa., vending machine company founded by their grandfather 48 years ago.

All eight of the Whitsens' new CD-less jukeboxes are doing more business than the machines they replaced.

The machines are so new that not all features are working yet, and some labels haven't signed contracts to have their music included on them. So, for a while, there will be no Sinatra and no Springsteen.

But by the end of this year, TouchTunes expects to have signed deals with virtually all record labels and have 100,000 songs in its library, said regional sales manager Jim Kelly of Merchantville, Pa.

For the customers putting coins or, as is more often the case now, dollar bills in the slot, the album covers are displayed on a 17-inch color monitor. Tap one and the most popular song titles will appear. Tap a title and it will play instantly. Unlike conventional jukeboxes, there is no long pause while machinery fetches and positions a record or compact disc.

If the artist will soon perform in the area, ticket information may be displayed in a paid advertisement.

For record companies, the machines offer a new way to promote artists by playing their songs when the box would otherwise be silent. Not-yet-released albums can be previewed and promoted in this way.

All of this is possible, for the first time, because the computer inside the box is connected by high-speed modem and telephone line to TouchTunes' growing music library.

Vending operators such as the Whitsens can add tunes or advertising by tapping keys on the computer inside the jukebox or on a personal computer in their home or office.

Each night, after the restaurant or bar closes, every TouchTunes jukebox phones its central library. New songs and related graphics are downloaded, and data about the day's usage are uploaded.

The usage data allow vending operators to determine what artists and kinds of music sell best at particular locations. Concert promoters can figure out how to group artists to sell the most tickets, TouchTunes' Kelly said.

The main attraction to vending companies is the digital machine's speed and simplicity.

Mechanical jukeboxes had scores of parts that could wear out, but problems with the electronics of a digital jukebox can be diagnosed over the phone line by a distant technician. Its components are modular and can be replaced in seconds, Michael Whitsen said.

A conventional jukebox offers 100 CDs with more than a thousand tunes, but only a few songs on each album tend to get played, Whitsen said.

TouchTunes offers just the popular songs from each album a total of 750 songs. More could be added as digital compression technology continues to improve.

As soon as flat-screen monitors come down in price, Kelly said, there will be new compact models that can be hung on walls like a picture and linked to a computer in a nearby office.

At some point, he said, the technology will bring jukeboxes connected to vast central music libraries into homes.

"And these jukeboxes have the potential of retail sales without the expense and risk of inventory," Whitsen said.

While a song is being played, he said, CDs, T-shirts and other merchandise related to the artist could be displayed on the screen. A customer could tap an item and swipe a credit card, and the order could be in the mail within hours.

For now, TouchTunes isn't rushing into that.

"The very best, most profitable location for a jukebox," said John Margold, TouchTunes sales and marketing vice president, "is still a joint with Harleys and pickup trucks in the parking lot where most of the customers don't carry credit cards."

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