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What is a Jukebox?

A jukebox is a nostalgic music-playing device, often found in diners and bars, that lets you select your favorite tunes from a collection of records or CDs. With its colorful lights and vintage charm, it's a portal to the past, inviting you to be the DJ of your own soundtrack. Ever wondered how it evolved? Join us on a melodious journey through time.
S. Mithra
S. Mithra

A jukebox is like a large, coin-operated stereo that contains a set of albums and the mechanism to select and play songs. Originally, jukeboxes played vinyl LPs of every size, but newer models use CDs or even digital music files.

During their heyday in the 30s-60s, jukeboxes were installed in restaurants, dance clubs, diners, and bars to blast out their popular tunes so young people could dance and be coaxed into spending more money. Nowadays, a jukebox is more likely to be a valuable collectible in a private collection than entertaining people at the corner soda fountain.

The invention of the phonograph changed the way people experienced music.
The invention of the phonograph changed the way people experienced music.

The advent of the phonograph, an instrument that could play and amplify sound from an album, changed the way people experienced music. A modernized version of the phonograph which had to be operated by hand, was the jukebox. In the early 1930s, several companies began manufacturing these automatic phonographs that could be stocked with dozens of albums. It could play any single song off the album as soon as you rolled a coin into a slot and pressed the right button. The songs were listed on cards that corresponded to different combinations of buttons, such as D-4. Various models could play both 45s and 78s.

Dance halls in the Southern United States were the first to establish the jukebox as a great way to earn extra money by giving young people some control over the amplified music. It's believed that "juke" became a nickname for the coin-operated phonograph because dance halls were already being called "juke joints." That was probably derived from African-American slang where "jook" meant an excitable pandemonium of dancing kids.

Of course, the jukebox design took on many colors, sizes, and shapes over the years. However, one model has become emblematic of the classic jukebox. This is the Wurlitzer Bubbler, named because air bubbles floated up through glowing tubes of water along its sides. The top was curved and similarly outfitted with jewel-tone glass vials and shiny, chrome trim.

Today, you can find a vintage jukebox as a retro diner or collector's home. In fact, the word "jukebox" has evolved with the digital age, and is much more likely to refer to a computer program that manages your digital music files. Like its mechanical counterpart, this tool helps you select, arrange, and mix songs in your library, giving you full control.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a jukebox and how does it work?

A jukebox is a coin-operated music-playing device that allows users to select songs from a list of available tracks. Traditionally, it works by the user inserting a coin and selecting a song from a series of buttons or a touchscreen interface. The jukebox then retrieves the physical media, such as a vinyl record or CD, and plays the selected song through built-in speakers. Modern jukeboxes may use digital files instead of physical media.

When were jukeboxes most popular, and why?

Jukeboxes saw their peak popularity during the 1940s and 1950s. They became cultural icons in diners, bars, and social clubs, providing affordable entertainment and a focal point for social interaction. According to the Amusement and Music Operators Association, there were as many as 750,000 jukeboxes in operation across the United States at the height of their popularity. Their appeal was partly due to the wide variety of music they made accessible in public spaces.

Can you still find jukeboxes today, and are they modernized?

Yes, jukeboxes can still be found today, often in retro diners, bars, and some entertainment venues. Modern jukeboxes have evolved with technology and now often feature digital downloads or streaming capabilities. Companies like TouchTunes provide internet-connected jukeboxes that allow users to select music from a vast digital library using a touchscreen interface or even a smartphone app, blending the nostalgic experience with modern convenience.

How has the jukebox influenced music consumption and culture?

The jukebox has had a significant influence on music consumption by making a variety of music accessible to the broader public. It democratized music listening, allowing people to discover new genres and artists outside of radio or personal collections. The jukebox culture also contributed to the rise of popular music charts, as the frequency of plays on jukeboxes helped identify hit songs. Its presence in social settings helped shape the soundtrack of generations and became an emblem of the American social scene.

What are some iconic jukebox models and their features?

Iconic jukebox models include the Wurlitzer 1015, known for its colorful, bubbly design and the Seeburg Select-O-Matic, which introduced the ability to select from 100 different records. The Rock-Ola jukeboxes are also notable for their stylish designs and quality sound systems. These classic models are highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts for their aesthetic appeal and the nostalgia they evoke, representing an era when craftsmanship and design were as important as functionality.

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Discussion Comments

Vincenzo

@Markerrag -- What's wrong with putting up entire compact discs? Those just give people more choices. Also, CDs increase the capacity of the machines because they don't take up as much space as old records. That means more music can be offered. Usually that means a bunch of different genres are represented and you have classic rock on hand, too.

As for owners not changing these often enough, that is the fault of the people that own the machines and not the jukeboxes themselves. Besides, perhaps these aren't changed as much because they are not as popular as they used to be. Jukeboxes used to be all over the place, but they are comparatively rare these days. Why spend a lot of time and money maintaining something that probably isn't bringing in a lot of customers?

Markerrag

I haven't seen a "record" jukebox for years as everything has moved to compact discs. I am not sure that is a good thing because entire albums are put up instead of just singles and "B" sides (the way things were done when records were on these) and people don't seem to change the music as often.

This may be the case where older is actually better.

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    • The invention of the phonograph changed the way people experienced music.
      By: Dmytro Tolokonov
      The invention of the phonograph changed the way people experienced music.