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New jukeboxes to cater to 'Net-savvy customers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You're at your favorite bar. You amble up to the new Internet-connected jukebox and punch up your favorite tune. In moments, the jukebox downloads the song, plays it and asks if you want to buy the CD.

Then, you notice the jukebox displaying the live video feed of an attractive patron sitting in a bar 3,000 miles away.

In seconds, you've e-mailed a hopeful message: "Can I buy you a song and a drink?"

Obviously, this is not your father's jukebox.

In fact, the bubble-tubed, Art Deco mechanical machines that have survived for a century as an American music icon are about to be transformed by the Internet music revolution.

Little-known startups such as Ecast Inc., as well as long-established jukeboxmaker Wurlitzer, are rolling out online, computer-powered digital jukeboxes that they hope will supplant an estimated 250,000 machines that spin vinyl 45 rpm records or plastic CDs.

Not only do the new "downloadable" jukeboxes promise a virtually limitless selection of songs - nearly enough to make a Napster junkie happy - but the concept could also make e-commerce transactions such as buying a CD palatable for millions who don't use computers at home or work.

"It really is kind of a 'duh' idea," said Edward Bevilacqua, chief executive of Fun e-Business Inc., a San Diego company that designed the technology for a new computerized model that Wurlitzer Jukebox Co. of Chicago plans to roll out later this year. "The jukebox is a multigenerational product that people feel good about."

A deal that San Francisco-based Ecast announced last week is the strongest signal to date that digital music is beginning to transform the $2-billion-a-year jukebox industry.

Rowe International Inc. of grand Rapids, Mich., the world's biggest jukebox manufacturer, said it will build new downloadable jukeboxes using Ecast's Internet technology, called the Siren Entertainment System.

The Rowe-Ecast jukeboxes will be able to tap into a library of thousands of songs from major and independent record labels.

Each box can store the equivalent of 400 discs on a local hard drive. For payment, the boxes will also accept credit cards.

Because Rowe claims 70 percent of the North American jukebox market, the deal will get the attention of traditional jukebox operators who historically have been skeptical about switching to new technology, said Marcus Webb, editor of the industry publication RePlay Magazine.

"That is going to send a really big signal to the operators who buy these jukeboxes," he said.

One company, TouchTunes Music Corp. of Montreal, has already leased about 2,000 of its Genesis digital jukeboxes around the country. The TouchTunes jukebox can store 750 downloaded songs.

According to jukebox historians, the first commercial "coin-operated phonograph" made its premiere on Nov. 23, 1889, in San Francisco's Palais Royal restaurant. Inventor Louis Glass affixed a coin slot to an Edison gramophone, which played sound for two minutes for a nickel.

In the early 20th century, jukeboxes became cabinet-housed players that played songs from a small collection of vinyl records. The first Wurlitzer jukebox - the 1933 Debutante - offered10 songs. The company now has a model that holds 120 CDs.

Later this year, Wurlitzer plans to roll out a model that looks like an old-fashioned rainbow-colored jukebox on the outside but replaces the mechanical CD or record changer on the inside with an off-the-shelf computer.

Digital storage

The jukebox can store 10,000 songs in digital form on a hard drive and, through a high-speed digital subscriber line, access and download music from a virtual library of 200,000 songs, using Liquid Audio Inc.'s compressed digital format.

Mechanical jukeboxes have to be manually updated to add the latest tunes, which means distributors have to visit each unit and replace unpopular CDs with new ones.

Even so, "The biggest problem you have with CD jukeboxes is that only one to three songs out of 12 (on a CD) are being played by the jukebox patron," said Joe Pankus, chief executive officer of Wurlitzer USA.

However, with Internet-connected jukeboxes, "you have all the hits," Pankus said.

Ecast chief executive and founder Mouli Cohen said his system also has the ability to link to a site that sells CDs and deliver other forms of entertainment, such as video games, film and cartoons.

Cohen also envisions a time when jukeboxes will be used to buy and print concert or sports tickets.

And imagine a day, Cohen said, when a jukebox network includes screens that show people in other taverns around the country.

"If you're in a bar in San Francisco and see someone in New York," he said, "I can buy him or her a drink or a song from the location where I am."

That could bring sweet music to an industry that has been slowly shrinking due to competition from the new forms of digital entertainment, from video games to the home computer.

Studies have shown that jukeboxes remain a staple in bars but have practically disappeared from restaurants, pizza joints and ice cream parlors since the late 1980s, according to Jim Hayes, chairman of the jukebox committee for the Amusement & Music Operators Association, a trade group.

The downloadable jukebox "gives our industry a chance to gain back some market share in some of the venues we used to have."

Obsolete machines?

But RePlay's Webb said that persuading the thousands of bar and restaurant owners to install downloadable jukeboxes could be dificult.

As a group, they waited until 10 years after CDs were introduced - and five years after CDs had replaced vinyl albums - to start replacing their old vinyl-playing jukeboxes with machines that played CDs.

In fact, a new but still-unreleased jukebox industry survey by the University of New Orleans shows 19.6 percent of the commercial jukeboxes still in use play vinyl 45 rpm records.

"American operators are coming to the reluctant conclusion that the technology that they were 10 years behind the rest of the country in embracing - CDs - may eventually have to be replaced by downloading music," Webb said.

"But they're not eager to do it."

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