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August 20, 2013

It’s an experience we’ve all had: You walk into one of your favorite watering holes and turn toward the corner where the jukebox is, only to find the familiar machine you knew by heart replaced by the glowing touch-screen of its new digital replacement. The songs you want are probably in there somewhere, but now it takes navigating menus and a bunch of typing to locate them. Something about it just isn’t the same. Your bar, it seems, has sacrificed a little chunk of its personality in the name of progress, and now its once-unique musical identity is the same as tens of thousands of others.

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That we’re capable of complaining about replacing decades-old machinery with new technology that offers a far superior experience on a number of levels is a testament both to how desensitized we’ve become to new tech, and to how our powerful emotional relationships with the machinery we listen to music on can blindside common sense. In reality, the glowing, curvilinear, vinyl-filled jukebox of the popular imagination was a far-from-perfect device, strictly limited in its capacity and chronically prone to mechanical failure. Outside of a certain sentimental minority, owners of venues with jukeboxes happily exchanged them for CD-based ones as soon as they could in the ’80s. Those weren’t much better either, offering a slightly greater selection but considerably less inspiring aesthetics. It’s tough to imagine Joan Jett putting a dime (or more likely a dollar) into one of those and feeling at all like a badass about it.

You could also say the same thing about digital machines, which offer little in the way of outlaw feel, among a number of other complaints: too much awkward typing, too many gaudy graphics, too little soul. But that’s starting to change, and digital jukeboxes are starting to offer far more advantages over traditional ones than being able to skip your song to the front of the queue.

TouchTunes was the first company to offer digital-download jukeboxes, back in 1998, and they’ve kept the market fairly well-cornered since then. There are about 80,000 digital jukes in North America (compared to 30,000 CD ones), and TouchTunes made about three-quarters of them. Last year users played 950 million songs on the company’s products, placing it second behind iTunes in paid digital sales.

The pokey touch-screen jukebox that showed up at your bar ten years ago was probably created by TouchTunes, but ever since former BMG president Charles Goldstuck took over as CEO in 2009, the company has pursued an aggressive development strategy to push its machines beyond their limitations. He brought in the famed Frog Design (which created Apple’s iconic “Snow White” design language) and partnered with the massive electronics manufacturer Flextronics, and pushed products onto an accelerated two-year production cycle similar to how Apple treats the iPhone.

The pinnacle of TouchTunes’ new approach is called Virtuo, and it shares more in common with the iPhone than the way it’s made. Goldstuck described it to me as an attempt to “design, develop, and build the jukebox for this era, the era of the screen.” This means multi-touch support and auto-generated suggestions based on listening trends the company sorts from data collected from its machines, making finding music considerably easier. A free smartphone app allows users to compile playlists, check what songs are queued up, and purchase credits online. The company says it’s been downloaded 1.6 million times, mostly around happy hour. There’s even a built-in camera with a photo-booth app to take group pictures, and an option to turn the whole thing into a karaoke machine.

For as much of a forward-thinking executive as he is, Goldstuck still comes from the old-school music industry, and he seems to have a lot in common with the nostalgia-afflicted music geeks who tend to scoff at anything digital. In designing Virtuo, he says, “What I wanted to replicate was what I had when I came to America, which was going into a Tower Records and you had all of the CDs, rock A through Z, all there on one wall, and if you had two hours you could see everything that was there.” And when discussing the design of the machine itself, he shows me a photo hanging over his desk of Thelonious Monk playing in the corner of a New York City bar next to a classic Seeburg jukebox, all mid-’50s Space Age chrome and lights. “Even today,” he says admiringly, “the design of that is still magnificent.”

For all of its photo-booth features and social-networking integration, the Virtuo’s primary use is still playing music in a social environment. And on that level, it finally offers an experience that hits the same sweet spot that made the old-fashioned jukebox such an integral part of pop culture. The multi-touch user interface (designed in association with Frog) and intuitive recommendation engine make finding your music feel more like flipping through a record collection than using an ATM. The ability to look at the music that’s popular at the particular location you’re at gives an even clearer picture of the place’s musical identity than the static selection of CDs on the wall. And while the photo-booth app and built-in social-networking integration are completely unnecessary features in a jukebox, they’re also very fun.

Like the Seeburg in the photo over Goldstuck’s desk, the Virtuo’s got style and personality, enough to lay to rest any but the most dedicated Luddite’s misgivings about the jukebox’s transition into the digital age. “Put another credit on the jukebox via iPhone app” doesn’t quite have the same ring as the original lyric, but that’s easy to forgive.