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MP3 Jukeboxes: A Cult of Personality

Lately, I've found myself walking into bars I haven't visited for a while, and have been mortified to see the old school CD jukebox replaced by a neon monstrosity: the MP3 jukebox. At face value, the MP3 jukebox seems brilliant. And from a digital music nerd standpoint, it is. As media technology has evolved—vinyl to cassette to CD—so has the technology of the jukebox—vinyl to CD and now to digital. Its place in the world makes sense. The problem is that I am unable to reconcile my love of new technology's ease with my sentimental attachment to the old school mechanical jukebox.

Trying to choose 7 songs from 96 albums hand-selected by bar staff and owners, many of which tend to suck, is part of the fun. Not to mention the carefully crafted mixes sprinkled between the Cashes and the Zeppelins, named lovingly after the bar itself—Mission Bar 1, Ha Ra 2, etc. But you don't find those in MP3 jukeboxes. While the bar owners select a base catalog of songs, everything they don't have can be downloaded. Someone who knows how to make a playlist can rock one of these jukeboxes all night long (at 50 cents a song it's a good thing they take credit cards), but so can any jerk with bad taste and a wallet full of cash or plastic.

A jukebox is as important to a bar’s identity as the man slinging whiskey behind the bar. A bar with clientele who favor Wire and X should have a stained, beer-covered jukebox that reflects this—not a glowing behemoth that might have Velvet Revolver between the two. While I tend to have a relatively egalitarian view regarding access to booze, offering all music to everyone in any bar makes it more difficult to identify the “kind” of bar it is—biker, punk, cougar, pick-up, etc. It is about personal choice, and the jukebox can be a useful gauge in deciding what kind of bar it is and whether or not it's for you. Chances are that if you recognize nothing on the jukebox and hate the song blaring as you check it out, you could be in the wrong bar.

Design-wise, MP3 jukeboxes are monstrosities. A jukebox shouldn't look like an ATM, nor be a "wifi hotspot." (It's just not right, get out of my bar and go to the coffee shop if you want free wifi.) There is something beautiful about bizarre juxtaposition in traditional jukeboxes—Al Green above Motorhead next to Sam Cooke and Sufjan Stevens—and that beauty is lost when you have digital images of album covers organized from A - Z. The full color touch screen interface is cold and sad. Plus, it takes the fun out of trying to correctly match the letters and numbers listed on the album with the letters and numbers on the keypad, especially when doing so with one eye open.

The proliferation of MP3 jukeboxes won't stop any time soon, so I may just be an old lady shaking a cane at the new technology on my lawn. But maybe, just maybe, bar owners will hold out and realize that the contents of the jukebox are as important as the strength of the drink and stick with what they have.