Swans Commentary » swans.com March 8, 2010  



The Jukebox Blues


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - March 8, 2010)   Not too far in the distant past, you could go to a neighborhood, town, or college bar and expect to hear a particular type of music. During my first foray into graduate school in Athens, Ohio, in the early to mid 1990s, I could expect to hear alternative and metal at the Union, '80s pop at O'Hooley's, and classic rock at Tony's. When I later moved to Boston, I would hear alternative at the now-defunct Local 186 in Allston, blues at the Green Street Grill in Cambridge, or jazz at Wally's in Boston. Back in those days, bartenders could generally be relied upon to create great mixes to set the mood for the evening. Additionally, compact disc-burning technology was not greatly available to the general public so bar mixes were likely made on cassette tapes.

Eventually, CD-burning technology became more available to the public in the late '90s and made it possible to duplicate entire CDs. Once this technology was fused with the emergence of compressed music file formats (i.e., MP3s) and file sharing networks, the music industry was prompted to step in and tightly regulate the distribution of "its" products.

Many of you are technologically savvy enough to know some of the effects of the music industry's meddling with consumer choice at the dawn of the digital revolution. File sharers now can be sued for copyright infringement even if their purpose of acquiring MP3 files is either for educational purposes or to sample an artist's music before going out to purchase packaged compilations of the artist's work. But this isn't the worst of the music industry's attempts to control what we listen to. ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), the music industry's street enforcers of copyright, have, since the mid to late 2000s, begun to fine bar establishments for playing CD or cassette mixes of copyrighted music. (1) So now bar owners have made one of two adjustments. Either they pipe through their sound systems music from a subscription service such as Live365 or Shoutcast or they allow digital jukebox companies affiliated with ASCAP or the music industry to place Internet jukeboxes in their establishments. I don't have any issues with the first measure; however, Internet jukeboxes have become pernicious attempts for purportedly broadening the range of consumer choice.


Maintaining the "Southern" or "Confederate" Aesthetic in Integrated, yet "Southern" Bars

Now that I live in the deep South, Florida to be exact, there is a tendency of bars -- usually fraternity bars or bars that tend to have a religious devotion to "southern" culture (sometimes these categories of bars are one and the same thing) -- to limit what types of genres can be played on the jukebox, although the genre choices on the jukebox are varied. Predictably, what is only acceptable is country and southern rock. On certain nights at particular "southern" bars here, you might hear "Free Bird" six or seven times in a row in a two- or three-hour sitting. Different musical choices are usually not allowed, such as jazz, hip hop, R&B, Latin, and electronic. This is somewhat troubling considering that all bars here are integrated, and that it is not necessarily stereotypical that a black customer (or white customer for the matter) might want to select a jazz or hip hop tune to download on the jukebox. Being that it is Florida where you can have your vote discounted, I have not been surprised that in several venues here, bar management has skipped my songs or those of other minority customers without providing refunds. So one bad aspect of the digital jukebox is that it allows bar owners and managers to cheat customers out of hearing their songs in their entirety. It is not generally given as to what a bar manager or crowd will like or dislike anyway (it would be stereotypical to think that all patrons of the "southern" bar listen to or like only country or southern rock), but the bar should at least have the courtesy to refund the customer when it skips a song for which the customer has paid to hear. Most importantly, these jukeboxes have genre filters that the bar can initialize in advance, so that customers who want to play something that might not fit the bar's musical aesthetic will never see songs from such genres available for download. The problem is that bars generally don't want to activate those filters at all, because they want to operate such machines as lose-lose slot machines. More on that later. But in summary, the music industry, by their pushing of digital jukeboxes to bars, seem to only encourage bars to become more firmly culturally homogenous and segregated.


"Flooding" the Jukebox

Given that the bar customers "share" use of the jukebox, sharing does not generally occur. In particular, some customers (usually men) will insert twenty or thirty dollars into the jukebox so that they can have only their music playing for the next two or three hours. While some jukeboxes have a random cycling feature for circumventing this (i.e., the quantity of downloads reaches a maximum and songs downloaded thereafter will be randomly mixed instead of played in consecutive order), random cycling will not work effectively when one customer has selected forty or fifty songs or "flooded" the jukebox. It is perhaps only a matter of time before Internet jukeboxes are wired to accept bank or credit cards, so that this particular act of flooding will reach unprecedented levels.

Additionally, bartenders or bar owners down here in the south have also been guilty of flooding the jukebox. Usually, the bartender/management will take tips or cash from the drawer to download forty or fifty songs without informing the general clientele. What this means is that the guy who has just wandered in from the street to sip a brew and download for general enjoyment John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" will never hear his song, and the bar will not tell him that his chances of hearing his song are virtually next to nothing. (2) When I have noticed flooding by a bar employee or customer, I have often tried to put up a sign on the jukebox indicating that the jukebox is flooded but most of the time the sign is taken down (usually by bar employees). But this is a very dishonest business practice: it is as if while waiting in line, you have already paid for a beer but never ever will receive it. It is really a shame that bars have resorted to suppressing information about their business practices that would allow prospective customers make informed financial choices. Again, we can thank the music industry for these digital music boxes that allow bar owners to use them as slot machines.


The Ever Fading Human Memory

Finally, the digital jukebox has not only usurped human memory but has allowed other technologies to be discourteously used. I've noticed than among the younger drinking population (usually women but not exclusively so) that some individuals do not know what song to select on the jukebox when it is their turn to make a selection or selections. So what they will do is access the Internet from their Blackberry or I-Phone and search YouTube for song names or artist names or access their I-Tunes accounts to determine what songs to play. So if you are a customer waiting in line, your wait could last a while, especially if there are people in front of you who engage in the same behavior. Memory loss is of course part of the drinking experience, but I recommend to people (if they are at all concerned about making the bar experience enjoyable for everyone) to make up a song list in advance before heading out to drink at the local saloon.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. He thinks diverse musical tastes can coexist in bars and/or restaurants.   (back)


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1.  http://www.wired.com/listening_post/2007/07/ascap-cracks-do/  (back)

2.  Actually, I recall putting on this particular song by Coltrane at one Tallahassee saloon and was told by a fellow customer that this music was unsouthern and un-American, which is a strange thing to hear considering that Coltrane was born in North Carolina, and that jazz arguably originated in the American South.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/hewhit03.html
Published March 8, 2010