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Drop the smartphone, don't mess with the jukebox

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
September 8, 2013 -- Updated 1509 GMT (2309 HKT)
Teenagers stand by a jukebox in a dance hall in Richwood, West Virginia in September, 1942.
Teenagers stand by a jukebox in a dance hall in Richwood, West Virginia in September, 1942.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New smartphone apps let people control jukeboxes from their seats
  • Bob Greene says the classic jukebox experience includes the stroll to the machine
  • Greene: Jukeboxes glowed and bubbled, flashed and blinked, gave a come-hither wink
  • A good jukebox is certainly worth getting up from your seat, he says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and the novel "All Summer Long."

(CNN) -- Chuck Berry was nowhere in the tavern, either in person or on record. But inside my head I was hearing his voice:

"Drop the coin right into the slot/You've gotta hear something that's really hot. ..."

James Taylor wasn't in the place, either. Not the man, not his music. Yet I was hearing his voice, too:

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

"Hey, mister, that's me up on the jukebox/I'm the one that's singing this sad song/Well, I'll cry every time that you slip in one more dime ... "

There was no mystery to what was bringing on this private reverie. I had stopped into an Ohio tavern for a cheeseburger the other night, and when I looked across the room I saw an ultra-slim, touchscreen-enabled, digital-music-only jukebox displaying a backlit message.

The message was an invitation to try something called AMI Bar Link.

To do that, customers would download an app to their smartphones. This would allow them -- in the words of the official announcement from AMI Entertainment Network -- to "play music right from your seat. . .there's no more waiting in line to select songs."

Digital jukeboxes have, of course, been around for quite a while. The more recent app-enabled jukeboxes -- there is competition in the field; AMI is not alone -- are based upon a perceived desire: that customers in bars and restaurants are eager to pull out their smartphones, gaze at the little screens, see a full selection of the songs on the jukebox that's across the room, then, in AMI's words, take advantage of "a greatly improved user interface and a variety of new features, including automatic check-ins, better search capabilities, and a more secure purchasing process."

In other words: play a song.

Now ... ingenuity on the part of companies is to be applauded, and it's certainly easy to see how the jukebox industry feels the need to keep modernizing. Every person with a smartphone already has, in essence, a personal jukebox in his or her pocket -- what's the need for real jukeboxes if everyone has an infinite and portable selection of music available at all times?

So, on the surface, it makes sense that jukebox manufacturers would try to do all they could do to appeal to the smartphone generation.

However, something feels slightly amiss.

For starters, is it really such a burden to stand up and walk the few feet to a jukebox? It's a hallowed part of the American experience -- that jukebox stroll, and then standing there thinking about what to play next, has always been kind of a kick. And besides, people can use the exercise.

Also: Is there truly a hankering among people to find yet another reason to stare at their phones instead of at their actual surroundings? It's not as if music summoned from phone screens is a rarity, some exotic trick destined to fascinate. People do it all day, every day.

Jukeboxes, though ... well, jukeboxes were never meant to be regarded from a distance. They glowed and bubbled, they flashed and blinked, their come-hither wink said: You really want to walk over here. You won't be sorry.

What could be simpler: Head over to the jukebox, commune with its list of songs, feed it some money, listen to the music you've chosen.

Well, perhaps this is simpler, although it's difficult to imagine. According to AMI, "Using the app is easy: Just search for a venue with the app's built-in location finder, sign in with a Megatouch Live account, and start playing your favorite songs! If you don't have a Megatouch Live account, you can create one from within the app. ... Once a user selects a song, funds are pulled from the user's App Wallet and sent directly to the machine."

(And, for those who are accustomed to VIP lounges and skyboxes, users of the app can, from many feet away, ditch in line, according to AMI: "They can even bump their songs to the front of the queue by selecting the Priority Play option for an additional charge.")

Lovers of jukeboxes have long known, through word of mouth, where the best ones in every city are. There was an exceptional one in the first-floor bar of a long-gone Holiday Inn in Kansas City, where Aerosmith's "Dream On," when it first came out, sounded almost as good as hearing the band play the song live; a jukebox in a bowling alley called Wally's Seymour Bowl in Seymour, Wisconsin, had an especially crisp-sounding version of Alan Jackson's twang-and-power-chord remake of "Mercury Blues." You may have your own nominees; a good jukebox is worth traveling many miles to visit. It's certainly worth getting up from your seat.

At Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis that has for decades been reputed to have one of the finest jukebox selections in the United States, Chuck Berry himself is still a regular, in-the-flesh presence. In the early Elvis Presley movie "Loving You," a jukebox even plays a key role as Elvis' ally in a fight with a local tough guy. Here: Take a look for yourself.

There is, at least symbolically, a throwback aspect to the app plan: Americans who are old enough may remember the little wall-box jukeboxes that were mounted next to booths in some restaurants, for the convenience of customers in mid-meal.

So perhaps it will turn out to be a brilliant business decision to adapt jukeboxes to the smartphone era.

But there's another school of business thought: When everyone else zigs, that's the time for you to zag.

Let people, at their homes, in their cars, at their offices play personal music on their phones to their hearts' content. They're doing it anyway.

But when they go out at night, give them something they don't have at home:

An old Wurlitzer, or Seeburg, or Rock-Ola. A classic jukebox stocked with vinyl, with records the customers can actually watch being played behind the glass. On astonishing-looking turntables. With needles.

Now, that would be something worth getting out of your seat to see.

But, a word of caution, from Olivia Newton-John:

"Please, mister, please/Don't play B-17 ..."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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