TouchTunes Jukeboxes are Ruining Bars

The soundtrack of every bar is slowly becoming the same.

My friends and I go to the same bar for happy hour, like we’re sitcom characters. Drained from the work week, my friends and I leave our offices and angrily stumble to Oscar’s Tavern every Friday. A few hours later, we happily stumble out, the woes of the week disappearing under the weight of whiskey shots, 23-ounce Yuengling Lagers and one-and-a-half cheesesteak specials.

This has been going on for so long I’m not actually sure when we started doing this. I wrote that our Friday happy hour was “the usual” over two years ago, so it’s been a while. When you’re a regular at any place you fear change—the service gets worse, the bar changes its food or drops a staple beer. Sometimes your bar gets closed down. All bars open and all bars close. (Except for McGillin’s, which will be serving former frat boys until the end of time.)

A little bit ago Oscar’s temporarily replaced its cocktail recipe placemats and replaced them with plain white ones. It wasn’t as terrifying as if our favorite waitress, Dee, left, but we didn’t know what to do. The placemats returned, and everything seemed to be back to normal.

But then the jukebox was replaced with TouchTunes.

I’m not blaming Oscar’s. (Obviously.) A thorough, entertaining 2009 article in The Bollard of Portland, Maine, on the explosion of TouchTunes jukeboxes in bars explained that bars don’t usually have a choice. iPods replaced Discmans, and digital jukeboxes replaced CD jukeboxes. When a bar’s CD jukebox goes–the Oscar’s one hadn’t been working consistently for a while–the only option is often TouchTunes. And since TouchTunes is more expensive than a regular jukebox–and its option to pay more to play a song next is an attractive impulse buy for a drunk person–the bars usually end up making more money.

But I reject the whole premise of a TouchTunes jukebox. Whether it’s 45s or CDs, a jukebox with a limited selection of songs reflects a bar’s personality. That personality might be a carefully chosen selection of albums that received a perfect 10.0 from Pitchfork or whatever CDs were left in the machine when it was purchased from TNT Amusements. No matter how much work was put into choosing a bar’s jukebox music, it was a selection. Certain music fit in certain bars.

“The good thing about [TouchTunes] is you can play pretty much anything,” The Bollard quoted a waiter at Portland’s Downtown Lounge. “The bad thing is you can play just about anything.” Technological progress is usually better. However the Internet has changed the music industry, the selection of music is much larger and often instantaneous. (David Thorpe wrote that YouTube was “so shockingly complete in its catalogue of illegally uploaded music that it’s like a cheap jukebox that plays every song, ever.”) While I miss Tower Records, the ability to get almost every song instantaneously one way or another is a trade-off I can accept.

The TouchTunes revolution is not. Every bar’s jukebox is becoming the same. There are holdouts–McGlinchey’s, Doobie’s and South Philly Tap Room have notably great jukeboxes–but eventually all the CD jukeboxes will break and everyone will probably have to install digital jukeboxes. And while Ken Kweder has CDs, he isn’t on TouchTunes!

The jukebox is but a small part of a bar’s appeal, but it’s sad to see them all become the same. Let’s not end this on a sad note, though. The backlash to TouchTunes will grow, eventually. And there will soon be hipsters selling and servicing CD jukeboxes–maybe even old ones that play 45s!–ready to put into trendy bars that want to offers its customers an alternative. The old school jukebox will make a comeback, and I will be the first to put in my dollar and happily play whatever the bar thinks I should.