Digital's New Dynamic

Considering its roots in bar environs –– more than 120 years ago –– the fact that the jukebox’s evolution is once again shaping the ambiance of the nations’ drinking establishments should come as no surprise. However, the extent to which technology upgrades in these music-makers can affect a bar or restaurant’s guest experience and, potentially, its bottom line, just might.

The latest offerings from TouchTunes, Ecast, Wurlitzer and AMI suggest that the major providers of the software and hardware that power the digital age of bar music have only begun to get creative in taking the jukebox to a new level of profitability, causing owners and operators to once again sit up and take notice.

Ahead of the Curve

In the 11 years since a group of five entrepreneurs started Philadelphia-based TouchTunes, the company has brought digital music technology to bars, clubs, resorts and restaurants throughout the United States. To date, Dan McAllister, senior vice president of sales, says TouchTunes jukeboxes operate in more than 38,000 locations, offering patrons instant access to several hundred thousand songs from its catalogue of more than two million licensed tracks.

With an eye toward maintaining and even raising the revenue stream that venues realize from coin-operated music, TouchTunes broke free of the four-walls mentality of jukebox entertainment with promotional efforts that tie featured artists to live concert events.

“We did a promotion with Beck when he released his latest album last summer,” McAllister says. “We had all the information ahead of its release in stores, and we linked up with Facebook, as well, so patrons could find out where TouchTunes jukeboxes were and go and hear the new Beck release.”  In all, McAllister says TouchTunes has run 20 to 30 such interactive music promos that bring venues with TouchTunes jukeboxes into the mix of concert action and much-anticipated CD releases. A recent program offered bar patrons the opportunity to win tickets to one of the final Billy Joel concerts at Shea Stadium.

“The response from people is unbelievable,” McAllister says. “One thing we noticed is the spike in plays. We measure that, and it was absolutely a good thing for bars, the operators and TouchTunes.”  One New York City bar owner, who has had a TouchTunes Allegro operating in his Soldier McGee Tavern since the Upper West Side venue opened a year and a half ago, estimates that his digital jukebox revenues are triple that of the monthly yield owners could realize from CD models.  “The money is one thing, but the musical experience is completely another,” says Soldier McGee co-owner Joseph Bossolina. “With CD jukeboxes, you had 100 CDs with a maximum of about 10 songs each, so your whole jukebox maybe offered 1,000 songs, and really more like 200, since there are only about two songs per CD that patrons want to play. But with the TouchTunes’ focus on songs, you can have as many on there as you like. Customers get to pick from an amazing assortment of music.”

Through its exclusive myTouchTunes feature, music-loving bar patrons also have immediate access to their favorite play lists whenever they go to a venue with a TouchTunes jukebox. The myTouchTunes portal is accessed via a Web site where anyone can set up a user name and password and create as many play lists as they choose without even being at a bar, McAllister says.  “This allows you to build the music play lists that follow you everywhere you go,” he explains, noting “myTouchTunes will recommend other songs, as well as other groups, and the feature allows you to see other people’s play lists. No one else offers this feature.”

To Bossolina, the technology allows bar patrons to turn any TouchTunes jukebox in the country into his or her own personal DJ experience.  “When a patron enters a user name and password, not only does that person’s name and page come up, but a picture of them pops up as well,” he says. “When my customers find out about this feature, they just go crazy over it.”

Clean and Mean

Keeping the digital jukebox interface intuitive while maintaining the continuity of its appeal is no simple matter in the on-premise market today, where a venue might need to cater to yuppies and soccer moms at lunch, bikers on weekends and rockers at midnight on Saturdays. One platform provider that has managed to pull this off is AMI, a company headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich. that will mark its 99th year in the jukebox trade in 2009.

Along with the 600,000 song titles and 40,000 albums available in its state-of-the-art jukeboxes, AMI brings its near century of experience in coin-operated music to bear in the form of sophisticated filters that give operators maximum control of the music that is played in his or her venue.  “You don’t want one guy to download rap music and alienate country fans,” says John Margold, vice president of marketing for AMI. “In most locations, operators want the music coming from the jukebox to appeal to their standard audience.”  Regardless of the audience and the musical sensibilities that may be represented, Margold says AMI gives owners the flexibility to control the genres of music that may be played at a given moment.  “The person who buys the jukebox gets a Web site password, and he can press a button that is only accessible with a key to allow or restrict the playing of a genre of music,” he says. “The customer only sees what you want him to see in terms of the play lists.”

These custom filters allow the buck to stop where it needs to stop on a given day or hour of business, Margold adds.   “An operator may say, ‘I don’t want pop music played after 7 p.m. on a Saturday. I want heavy metal. If someone plays Fleetwood Mac, it ruins the mood.’”  As a result, the proprietor is never at the mercy of a sudden change in the music, which can and does have an impact on sales behind the bar.  “If a venue has a midnight crowd that is known to spend a lot of money at the bar, it can appeal to that crowd by giving them the acid rock music that keeps them there,” Margold says. This feature was the primary reason that Paul Matsen, owner of Alternative Brews in Amherst, N.Y. chose his MoD BoX Internet jukebox from AMI.  “We are a blues bar, and there are genres of music that do not fit my demographic,” Matsen says. “We cater to customers in their 30s and 40s, and rap and hip-hop are not going to go over well here; being able to filter that out helps. We still have a wide variety of music available, but I can filter out what I do not want being played.”

Another innovation from AMI popular with venues is the software that allows an operator or bar manager to put the jukebox in DJ mode.  “On Saturday night at 6, it can go into free play mode for a fee of $5 per hour, and patrons can play what they want to hear,” Margold explains. “I defy anyone to find a DJ who will work and not hit on the girls and do it for $5 per hour.”

Up and Coming

The latest wave of digital jukebox design from Ecast in San Francisco is one fully capable of enthralling the younger generations of music hipsters, who may have never put a dollar in a jukebox and paid to listen to music in their lives, while holding on to the older generations of patrons — those who grew up feeding quarters into the jukebox at their favorite rock ‘n roll or country-western hangout.

To accomplish this, Ecast is unique among the big three jukebox platform providers in its reliance on multiple partners for its hardware component. In certain settings, an Ecast jukebox might have the retro exterior look of a Wurlitzer, while in others it could take on the more contemporary appearance of Chicago’s NSM Music brand.  “We want to appeal to venues with all kinds of looks and clientele,” says Ecast’s Scott Walker, director of coin-op sales. “In an older tavern location, the Wurlitzer has a better fit and feel. In a Martini bar or a yuppie establishment, it may not work. That’s where we would rely on hardware from NSM Music or an equivalent.”

With so much change and innovation on the software side, Wurlitzer general manager Doug Skor says that the highly stylized look and quality of Wurlitzer jukeboxes, a wholly owned subsidiary of Gibson guitars, provide the continuity that keeps the music playing.   “When a patron sees a Wurlitzer Princess hanging on the wall, there is no doubt in their mind that it is a jukebox,” he says.  Whatever the look, the user interface of an Ecast-powered jukebox is the same, Walker says.

Ecast EQ, the company’s latest jukebox revolution and its first foray into the hardware side of the industry, does Ecast’s dual exterior strategy one better in its ability to appeal to the broad spectrum of jukebox patrons in a single model. Mounted vertically and featuring a 40-inch touch screen, the EQ is designed to appeal to a whole new generation of bar patrons who do not relate to traditional jukeboxes, Walker says.  “Typically, they are more computer savvy than the customers who would play the jukebox in some locations,” he says.  “They are twentysomethings into social applications. They are comfortable with hand-held peripherals, and they communicate via text messaging.”

Each of EQ’s three distinct components adds a different social and/or interactive layer to the entertainment mix. On top, The Beacon, easily viewable throughout a venue, displays video content, photos, interactive social applications and information about the current, last and next song playing. In the center, The Belt can display location/operator logos plus real-time Internet information such as weather and sports. The Belt at the lower end of the EQ jukebox provides an interface for interactive advertising, weekly music updates and real-time downloads from the massive Ecast music catalogue.

Unique Opportunities

At MR, an upscale barbershop and wine bar in San Francisco, managing partner Kumi Walker says EQ offers customers a unique opportunity to be more interactive and set their own mood.

 “It is a pretty neat piece of equipment,” says Walker, who opened the venue with its other managing partner, Sean Heywood, in March of 2007. “When I first saw it, I thought it looked like a big iPod.  “Our bar customers can come in and purchase music and select their way through the whole catalogue. It is so extensive that it’s more a question of whether you can remember what you would like to play than whether the song is available.”

Walker says the EQ feature window that allows him to advertise upcoming events at the venue is a strong selling point for the digital jukebox, which enjoys a prominent place in his wine bar’s main lounge area. Yet his customers have come to appreciate EQ for another reason.  “The most exciting thing for them is the camera that takes pictures and automatically uploads them on the EQ screen,” he says. “They enjoy seeing pictures of themselves having fun with their friends.”  While continuing to deliver the tunes that set the mood of an establishment, today’s digital jukeboxes also engage the guest in totally new ways, enticing them to spend more time and more money.

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