Death of the jukebox: Fighting for bar music's soul amid TouchTunes' takeover

Mourning the classic jukebox at Kilroys, a Minneapolis shop devoted to nostalgic goods.

Mourning the classic jukebox at Kilroys, a Minneapolis shop devoted to nostalgic goods.

It's Thursday afternoon at the CC Club, and sunlight is warming the bottles of cheap beer fizzing on the bar. It's early enough for Jeff Sorenson to hang out at the spot he's been drinking at since he was 16. That's because the new regulars haven't shown up yet, so the music coming through the digital TouchTunes jukebox is still vintage CC fare — Guided by Voices, R.E.M., the Jayhawks.

In a few hours, however, young folks getting an early start to the weekend at the iconic dive will push credit cards into the touch-screen machine available at bars and restaurants around the world. The result will be Ed Sheeran and Maroon 5 blasting in what used to be Minneapolis' coolest jukebox bar.

"The jukebox used to represent the people that came here," Sorenson bemoans.

And it still does... sort of. A lit, birdlike dude bouncing back and forth between the TouchTunes box and the bar even queued up "I'm in Trouble" by the Replacements. The CC Club used to be the Replacements' bar — 'Mats bassist Tommy Stinson told City Pages in 2013 that he "spent about a quarter of my life in that bar" — but that was back in the '80s and '90s, when the CC had an old-fashioned jukebox.

Sorenson takes a pull from his Budweiser. As more people start filtering in the place, he points out that the bar's old jukebox could only hold a few hundred songs.

"Nobody [could] play shitty music, because there [was] no shitty music," he says. "It's like coming to my house and looking through my record collection."

Hollywood set designers seek out vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes at Kilroys in Minneapolis.

Hollywood set designers seek out vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes at Kilroys in Minneapolis.

Kim Laurent Lusk, a server who's been working at the CC Club for nearly 30 years, walks by. She was the club's jukebox authority, rotating a balance of classic bar-rock ragers while debuting new tunes from the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum in the jukebox's heyday.

"It was like our baby," she says glowingly of the old jukebox. She remembers the time, 25 years ago, after someone threw on "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" by Nancy Sinatra. When that descending bassline bled through the throaty speaker, folks in the room jumped onto the bar and stomped out the jangly rhythm, walking along in their own boots.

Music in the CC Club — and countless other Minnesota bars — was easy to enjoy with the limited playlists and venue-specific charms of the vintage jukebox. But now internet jukebox business TouchTunes dominates the bar music market in the Twin Cities and beyond: The company has more than 71,000 machines in North America and Europe.

At the CC Club, it costs a dollar to play one song in the TouchTunes jukebox, or 50 cents for a Top 40 hit. The old-school machines typically charged 25 cents per play. Along with saving bars money on install costs and upkeep, TouchTunes has additional appeal to some because of its virtually unlimited music selection, making it the egalitarian choice for bars to embrace — kind of like Netflix or Spotify for the drinking scene. Similar to how other internet streaming services de-romanticize the act of searching for and buying content, TouchTunes makes bar music less special for some folks who spend the most time in bars.

"It was just really good to have the old-school music on," Laurent Lusk says. "It was something that we took a lot of pride in. And then all of sudden, you've got to let it go."

The 'magical' appeal of TouchTunes

The digital music machines made by TouchTunes are not jukeboxes. Or, at least, they're not just jukeboxes.

"This is the jukebox on steroids," says Sharon Cooper, a marketing manager at TouchTunes' corporate office in New York City. "It's the new-school new technology."

Founded in Canada, the company created its first digital jukebox in 1998. Since then, TouchTunes' dominance of the bar jukebox market has led to the development of extra functionality in their machines, including photo booth and karaoke features.

With TouchTunes, bar patrons can choose from several hundred thousand songs, with a promoted emphasis on Top 40 hits. But one of the company's main machines — the Playdium — does much more as one of "the world's first smart" jukeboxes. The Playdium learns what music is popular in its bar, then highlights the songs and artists that are "most relevant" to its location. It's sort of like how Laurent Lusk rotated tunes in and out of the old jukebox at the CC, but without the human touch. As Cooper puts it, TouchTunes is just as good, if not better, at providing the right music for the establishment. It's just like a jukebox, she says, but one that you can interact with using an app on your phone.

"It's still that magical moment when you choose a song and you're waiting for the song to come on," she says.

But the company's newest development, something it calls AttractTV, is reaching beyond music. Other than sticking with the apparent "no spaces between words" TouchTunes policy, AttractTV syncs with the TouchTunes box in the bar and can display drink specials, messages from the bartender, and photos posted to its app that customers hashtag with the bar's name.

"That's that magical moment that we love to leverage for our consumers," Cooper says of the AttractTV.

It's built on seemingly unnecessary functions, especially if the regulars have Instagram accounts and if the bartender has, you know, a voice. So try one of the 200 AttractTV locations if you like the social element of a bar, but would rather not talk to anybody.

350-pound night lights

Situated next to the restrooms, CC Club’s TouchTunes machine barks an all-caps demand.

Situated next to the restrooms, CC Club’s TouchTunes machine barks an all-caps demand.

Far away from TouchTunes' 15th-floor office in Midtown Manhattan, Kevin Hammerbeck shuffles through his basement showroom in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. Hammerbeck owns and operates Kilroys, an antique store that's one of the last places in Minnesota you can find several working jukeboxes, among other nostalgic paraphernalia.

It's a gray day, but the windowless basement is filled by bright green and red neon lights radiating from one of Hammerbeck's Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Next to it, a vintage Seeburg from 1948 rests unplugged. Compared to the classic charm of the Wurlitzer, the round facade and conoidal top of the Seeburg confuses the eye — it looks less like a jukebox and more like 1948's vision of a futuristic garbage can.

"It's like R2D2's grandfather," Hammerbeck chuckles as he plugs it in. The machine lurches into gear to play "Someone Like You" by Doris Day. Hammerbeck opens GrandpaD2's top to view the machine shuffle through its collection of old 78s, searching for the right musty vinyl record. Soon, the Seeburg's needle drops and Day's big band booms through the otherwise quiet showroom.

"To me, it's nice to watch something work," Hammerbeck says above the music. He's always loved mechanics, and his passion for jukeboxes began in Little Falls, Minnesota, where he grew up eating at the Country Kitchen and playing songs from its tabletop jukes. His love for coin-operated machines grew and led Hammerbeck to establish Kilroys in 1975.

When Hammerbeck started, jukeboxes weren't collector's items yet. In the mid-'70s, one could snag a Wurlitzer, the most popular jukebox model, for less than $500. Today, however, he's selling a 1985 CD-playing Wurlitzer for just under $8,000. It's so valuable because Wurlitzer doesn't manufacture jukeboxes anymore.

The Gibson-owned company peaked in postwar America way back in 1946, when it produced 56,000 units of its popular 1015 model.

Though he's met enough jukebox lovers to sell 300 of the CD-playing Wurlitzers since he launched Kilroys, it's getting harder to find enthusiastic customers. Hammerbeck even called the Wurlitzer company five years ago, asking if they knew why people weren't buying jukeboxes anymore.

The throwback jukebox at 19 Bar is loaded with handcrafted mix CDs.

The throwback jukebox at 19 Bar is loaded with handcrafted mix CDs.

"I said, 'Am I doing something wrong?'" Hammerbeck remembers. "They said, 'Our sales are going down equally as much.'" Today, a quick Google search pulls up two phone numbers for Wurlitzer's American office in Gurnee, Illinois — both of which are dead lines.

Hammerbeck says bar and restaurant owners still value the aesthetic of the classic jukebox, but the technology falls further from cutting-edge every day.

"I remember when I first sold the CD player [Wurlitzers]," Hammerbeck says, patting the machine with pride. "I'd say, 'This [jukebox] holds 100 CDs.' Everyone would go, 'wow.' Now, people pull out their fob and it's got, like, thousands of songs on it."

He walks over to yet another jukebox, a 1955 AMI that plays 45s. Its open window and chrome finish 

complete its Thunderbird-like look. When Hollywood film set designers visit Kilroys, Hammerbeck shows them the AMI last, as he knows they'll have an eye for it. Among other appearances, this jukebox landed a scene in Wilson, the forthcoming Woody Harrelson movie that was recently shot in Minnesota.

Despite its charm, the machine is a relic from a bygone era. Like the old bottles of 7 Up and Dad's Root Beer surrounding it, the AMI is also one of the last of its kind. Hammerbeck still didn't think he'd see so many jukeboxes age into nostalgia this way.

"I never really imagined it would happen this fast, in my life. I thought there would always be jukeboxes," Hammerbeck says. "I thought people would always be entertained by them — it meant something to have that music right there, rather than just a computer."

CC transitions

Back at the CC Club, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" by the Rolling Stones rattles throughout the bar. If you avert your gaze from the eerie perma-glow of the TouchTunes machine, you could half-convince yourself that the tune's digital conversion blaring over the sound system is just another CD in the old jukebox.

At the TouchTunes box, Paul Macpherson and a buddy stare with meek faces at the screen, swiping past Drake's "Hotline Bling" and Eric Church. Macpherson scoffs at the selection.

"Sometimes they have something in there that you like, but most of the time, they don't," the 30-something Macpherson says, begrudgingly feeding dollar bills into the machine. "The CC Club doesn't need this. It needs an actual jukebox with actual albums."

As night falls and the bar gets rowdier, Laurent Lusk remembers when the club painfully transitioned from jukebox to digital around 2011. "People around here don't like a lot of change," she notes.

After the CC ditched its famous jukebox for TouchTunes, the old crowd complained and convinced the bar to find a different jukebox in 2013, the same year the CC was purchased by adjacent upscale eatery French Meadow. Though an open call offering free beer for juke CDs gave the new selection a boost, it just wasn't the same as the original 'box.

"Even when we brought this fancy, old, beautiful jukebox in and tried to do what we did before," Laurent Lusk says, "the reality is that the young people didn't know what to play, because they didn't recognize any of the music."

A bleak scenario emerged: The CC now had a jukebox loaded with Hüsker Dü cuts, and most patrons didn't care enough to play them. Even for the older patrons looking to relive the fuzzy, guitar-charged bombast of "Something I Learned Today" on the juke, the technology itself revealed its deficiencies when the machine kept breaking.

"It wasn't worth having a repairman come out here every other day," CC Club bartender Mike Messina remembers.

Eventually, TouchTunes provided financial salvation to the owners of the CC Club. As they do in many establishments — including celebrated dives like the Red Dragon in Minneapolis, a past winner of City Pages' Best Jukebox prize — the TouchTunes team offered to upgrade the CC's entire sound system for free if it switched to the digital platform. Management chose to replace the bar's outmoded jukebox technology with TouchTunes yet again in 2014.

Though it hurt Laurent Lusk's heart to abandon her 30-year project curating the bar's music, she doesn't dwell on the past much. Instead, she smiles when she remembers the club inviting local bands like Red Daughters and Pennyroyal to debut their new records on the jukebox.

"People's new albums would come out, and we'd have their listening party before the CD's release," she says. "It was an honor to be played on this jukebox that's seen the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and Bob Mould and Soul Asylum. That was fun and that's sad we can't do that anymore."

But if TouchTunes has several hundred thousand songs available at a swipe of the screen, wouldn't that make the CC Club's music selection better?

"It started with us rejecting their songs," Laurent Lusk shrugs, thinking back to when the CC's younger crowd embraced the TouchTunes machine. "In the beginning, it was a little too much, like, 'Can we not play Justin Bieber again? Can we not hear Taylor Swift again?'"

Now it seems the newer regulars in the CC don't remember or care much about the club's erstwhile jukebox hero status. Instead of feeling resentful of the youthful patrons, Laurent Lusk chooses to let go of the bar she knew when she started serving here in the '80s.

"I had mixed feelings about [losing the jukebox]. I constantly had to defend the decision to people who'd been coming in here for a really long time," she says. "I've seen 30 years of change in this bar. It's their bar now. We still come here, but these guys are going to stay like we stayed. You've got to be fair. And it worked out well."

And consider the revised take from Sorenson, our CC barfly from earlier in the story.

"To be honest, I just appreciated it being there. I never even played the jukebox," he says. "It's stupid: Why would I put my money in the damn jukebox when someone else is going to do it? I'm just going to spend my money at the bar."

Where the jukebox lives on

Inside the 19 Bar in Loring Park, Kesha's "Tik Tok" blares to an otherwise quiet room. Nothing's going on right now, but from behind the bar, Andrew Beirl says that soon people will clamor to the bar's mammoth old-school jukebox. Though it doesn't have the same retro feel as Hammerbeck's machines, it's vintage, and it's one of the few CD-playing jukeboxes left in any bars in the Twin Cities.

Beirl has worked at 19 Bar for 10 years, but he's more than just a bartender. He's in charge of curating the jukebox just like Laurent Lusk was at the CC Club, and every few months he adds CDs by different artists that will win over the crowd at Minneapolis' oldest gay bar. Flip through the jukebox's selections, and you'll find Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Eurhythmics, and mix CDs that Beirl puts together himself.

It's a long, tedious process to get a mix CD into the 19's jukebox — Beirl buys the music online, burns the CD, designs a track list for the jukebox, then manually loads the disc into the old machine's finicky racks.

"But it's worth it," he reports. "One of my favorite things as a kid was making mix tapes."

Beirl hopes the 19 Bar will always use the old, CD-playing jukebox — at four spins per dollar, it's way cheaper to play music on than most TouchTunes machines. Even though internet jukes offer more variety, there's something exciting and mysterious about what you'll find on an old jukebox.

"It's a lot more fun to do the scavenger hunt where you're flipping through the discs [on a jukebox] and trying to find songs you would like, as opposed to just Googling it on your phone," he says. "It's a dying art."

He remembers the time someone queued up "What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes and the entire barroom immediately sang the whole tune together. You can find 4 Non Blondes on a TouchTunes box, but Beirl thinks the classic jukebox just has more emotional power.

"Everybody at the bar was singing at the top of their lungs," Beirl remembers. "I think it's a nostalgia thing — there's something special about classic jukeboxes."

Maybe perspectives similar to Beirl's will live on at the 19 Bar, the Triple Rock Social Club, and Grumpy's Bar in Northeast, a few places where old-style CD-playing jukeboxes still entertain with their limited selections. Like the dilapidating state of the physical music market, disc jukeboxes are dying out in the bar scene. Count Beirl among those holding out hope that increased jukebox technology will revive the popularity of older formats, just as MP3s did for vinyl.

"Anybody can do the touch screen. It's much more fun to not have unlimited [songs]," Beirl says. "I hope jukeboxes come back. I think they will, in time. Everything circles back."