Wednesday, April 26, 2006

MP3s are for iPods, not Jukeboxes

Back in the day, jukeboxes were the talk of the town. Patrons lined up to play their favorite songs in packed bars and restaurants while record labels capitalized on the promotional possibilities. Eighty years and a few format shifts later, technology is rapidly changing the way people listen to music. Enter Ecast, a San Francisco-based company of die-hard music fans that has returned the jukebox to its glory days and beyond.
— “Jukeboxes: Overview” (

Kudos to the people at Ecast for their success, but the MP3 jukebox is the worst thing to happen to bars since the invention of the Jaeger bomb. Am I a luddite? Hardly. I am obsessed with digital music technology and use it regularly. I am, however, a sucker for nostalgia, a self-proclaimed bar aficionado, and I have occasionally been dubbed a music snob. Although the gigantic library offered by Ecast (3,000 songs on the jukebox hard drive and an ever-expanding catalog of music numbering around 150,000 songs) seems like the whiskey-soaked music snob’s dream, it is really our enemy.

At face value, the MP3 jukebox seems brilliant and, truthfully, from a digital music nerd standpoint, it is, and its invention makes sense. As media technology has evolved—vinyl to cassette to CD—so has the technology of the jukebox—vinyl to CD and now to digital. The problem is that I am unable to reconcile my thirst for technology with my love of the mechanical jukebox.

The first problem with the MP3 machines is that their contents are all the same. Trying to choose 7 songs from 89 albums hand-selected by a potentially disgruntled staff, many of which I may or may not hate, is part of the fun. MP3 jukeboxes make it too easy because they has everything and what they don't have can possibly be downloaded. A press release quotes Jamie Brown, owner of San Francisco’s 540 Club:
With more than 150,000 songs to choose from on our Ecast broadband-enabled jukeboxes, listeners can always find a song they want to hear. And when new albums are released people can check them out on the jukebox in a place that’s fun to hang out, instead of going to their local record store.
If the bar were located in my hometown in rural Pennsylvania, where the only local record store you will find is the $2.00 cassette tape rack at a truck stop, this would be true. But what’s so bad about record stores when your local record store is Amoeba or Aquarius? In this case, the press release is regarding the San Francisco Weekly and the SF Bay Guardian crowning the 540 Club’s Ecast MP3 jukebox “Best of San Francisco.” For shame, San Francisco.

A music snob can rock one of these jukeboxes all night long (at 50 cents a song it's a good thing they take credit cards!). But on the other hand, so can any asshole with bad taste and a wallet full of cash or plastic. The point is that it takes the fun out of having bar owners and staff stock the jukebox for the bar. A jukebox is as important to a bar’s identity as the man slinging whiskey bottles, and a bar whose clientele listen mainly to Wire and X should have a jukebox that reflects this. We should not have to be in danger of hearing Britney Spears or something equally awful.

Chances are that if there is nothing on the jukebox for you, that bar is not the place for you. While I tend to have a relatively egalitarian view regarding access to booze, I believe that by offering all music to everyone in any bar makes it more difficult to identify the “kind” of bar it is— biker bar, punk bar, etc. It is about personal choice, and I often use the jukebox as a gauge for deciding what kind of bar I’m in and whether or not I like it. The taste of music found in the jukebox is indicative of a bar’s personality, just as knowing that someone likes to bungee jump leads you to believe they are a risk-taker.

Herein lies the genius of the MP3 jukebox: because the selection is so limitless, you just can’t hear it all in one set. These things are cash cows. People keep coming back to hear more and more because they know it’s available. In a February 2005 article in the San Francisco Business Journal, Christian Vara of Melo-Tone Vending (the company operates 33 Ecast jukeboxes in and around Boston) is quoted:
My Ecast-powered jukeboxes outperform my CD jukeboxes by as much as 4-to-1. That's because they have access to such a huge catalog of music, and because they never go down.
But the imperfections of regular jukeboxes are part of what makes them wonderful. The user interface on an MP3 jukebox is a brightly colored touch screen. As I mentioned in a previous post, the interface is reminiscent of a Wells Fargo ATM. Additionally, all of the albums are organized alphabetically. In an Ecast jukebox the amusement of seeing Al Green on top of Motorhead next to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is lost—and with it the challenge of trying to correctly match the letters and numbers listed on the album in the box with the letters and numbers on the keypad with one eye open. The full color touch screen interface is as unfeeling and impersonal as the ridiculous messages the jukeboxes display when in “screensaver” mode (see the picture below).

Imagine if Zeitgeist got one of these. Can you picture the legions of people working on laptops at the picnic tables on summer days? I can and I don't like it.

I partially intend this project to be about the bars as much as the jukeboxes. To me, the two are often inseparable. I go to certain bars because I love their jukeboxes, and I love the control over what CAN’T be played that is exercised by the bar’s staff (via exclusion). So the main problem for me, above all else, is the loss of something unique to a bar’s identity. Take, for instance, the difficulty I had writing the post for the Valley Tavern. There is no way I can chronicle 3,000 albums with just a pen, a notebook, and jkoshi’s camera to work with, but I also know that each Ecast jukebox I encounter will offer the same selection. There will be no highlights or low lights, because then I might as well copy and paste the same post for all of them. Instead, I have to concentrate on what people play on them, and how that fits into the personality of the bar: what was played that was great, what was played that should never be played again, what I happened to notice while flipping through the albums in line for the bathroom. Thus, I will show how, contrary to Ecast’s statement at the head of this post, the jukebox is not being returned to its glory days at all, but being stripped of its individuality.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Something for Everyone Starving for Destruction at the 500 Club

500 Club
500 Guerrero Street (Guerrero @ 17th) [Map]
Total Spent: $8+

This is always the place to go at 1:23 a.m. when you need one more glass of booze to quench the grinding loneliness, and you've slept with most of the bartenders so they have to serve you. A right fine place to stagger around in hoping that this time, you're gonna find 'The One' and not some alcoholic grease-ape who will leave you with nothing but a a taste of salt in your mouth and a sore asshole. Not that I speak from personal experience or anything. Be sure to lick the tables for a cheap cocaine high.
Eggs M's brilliant review on Yelp

I've spent many a 1:23am in the 500 Club in just such a state. One evening in particular found a friend and I sitting at the booth equidistant from the door and jukebox. We'd already had far too much to drink—I can't remember if we had been at some random scenester hell indie show or at a baseball game. I do remember that after a few beers at the Five Hunny on top of our lethal doses of Maker's Mark, we were drumming and singing along to Guns & Roses, talking to a homeless man as if his life story was the most fascinating thing we'd ever heard. As I professed my love for Axl Rose, we put enough money in the 500 Club’s jukebox to play Appetite for Destruction several times.

Appetite for Destruction is no longer in the jukebox at the 500 Club. I doubt that we were solely responsible for its removal, but I like to think we were. It’s a loss for sure, but not a tragic one, as the scope of the selection in the box more than makes up for the absence of Slash and Axl. The selection is so good, in fact, that last week a few friends and I found ourselves arguing over the best use of our collective cash. It became quite a conversation piece, and not just because of the Fernet shots an eager friend forced us to throw down our gullets (we had just finished a huge meal and were all in need of a digestif).

A small sign below this one boasts a 6am opening time but (sadly) it's not true.

The content of the jukebox ranges from metal to jazz with indie, soul, country, and punk in between. It is an eclectic mix befitting the blend of patrons who tumble into the curved, black leather booths seeking a bar atmosphere reminiscent of the trailer park’s local dive (complete with a working fireplace, pool table, and a photobooth that refused to take any of our dollar bills). Among the Ramones, Black Sabbath, and the Circle Jerks, you’ll find jazz legends Getz, Mingus, and Sinatra; black American pioneers Lee Dorsey, James Brown, and Toots & the Maytal; music snob rock darlings Dinosaur Jr., the Replacements, and Alkaline Trio; and, tucked in among the beautiful gems, a very out of place Bloc Party. Even Hank Williams Jr., Sr., and the Third all make an appearance in the 500 Club juke. You get the feeling that everything in that jukebox has been carefully selected to minimize annoyance and maximize enjoyment. Like MP3 jukeboxes, there is something for everyone. Unlike MP3 jukeboxes, the offerings to everyone clearly define the staff and regular clientele—random Marina folk who have sojourned off the beaten Valencia path excluded.

It is hard to find highlights in a jukebox this good, but I’d have to say that the Repo Man soundtrack something I’ve not noticed elsewhere. Best of all, though, is a 22-track unlabeled CD that dares you to press your luck and choose a random track. I can’t remember if we tried it and if we did we were certainly in no condition to play a guessing game. So my challenge to you, readers, is to go to the 500 Club and figure out what the hell that album is. Is it a carefully selected mix or is it a single album? Could it perhaps be my precious Appetite for Destruction? Your guesses are welcome.

All in all, the 500 Club jukebox definitely ranks as the best so far. Of course, there are so many left to go…

Monday, April 10, 2006

Close Encounters of the MP3 Kind at the Valley Tavern

The Valley Tavern
4054 24th St. (btwn Noe and Castro) [Map]
Total spent: $0

Noe Valley’s population contains a much larger working class faction than the yuppies flocking to 24th Street’s bourgeois eateries, bars, and boutiques would like to acknowledge. But neighborhood watering holes like the Valley Tavern (on 24th between Noe and Castro) still find their bar stools occupied by construction workers, old time barflies, and average Joes. They are havens for the dwindling non-yuppie population of the neighborhood and one would think the jukeboxes should reflect the last vestiges of the Noe Valley working class the way the bar does. At the Valley Tavern, however, this is not the case.

The Valley Tavern has an Ecast MP3 jukebox. A more detailed post on MP3 jukeboxes lies in the near future, so I will focus on what happens when such a travesty pops up in a good local bar. When such a vast library as that in an MP3 jukebox appears in a bar with such a mixed crew of drunkards like the Valley Tavern attracts, trouble is likely to ensue. Case in point: somebody managed to scrape enough circa 2000 New York City club trance music to torture me for nearly a half hour. Thanks to the sensitive neighbors, the Valley Tavern’s outdoor area closes early, at 8:30pm, so my only escape was the smoking room in the front of the bar and even there I was not free of the noise.

Although the Valley Tavern is a bit classier than your average dive, it's hardly Noe Valley chic. One would imagine that behind the glass a music fan would encounter classics like Elvis, Hank Williams, and Fleetwood Mac. Sure, all of this stuff is in the MP3 juke’s library; but so is a whole bunch of other crap. As delighted as I was to see Edith Piaf and Leonard Cohen at first glance, they simply don’t belong in the Valley Tavern. I happened to be at the bar for a friend’s birthday on Saturday night, and I’d like to use his song selections as examples of what actually does belong here. Tom Petty belongs here. Aerosmith belongs here. Oldies compilations belong here. Common music for the common man and none of this bullshit for the wayward wannabe club kids.

Take me to your leader.

One would also imagine that the jukebox in a bar like this would be dirty and its control pad worn from grubby fingers keying selections. Alas, this is not so. As if it’s not sad enough that the Valley Tavern has brought in an MP3 jukebox, they have also happened to invest in one of the ugliest jukeboxes I’ve ever seen—digital or otherwise. It looks like a bodega ATM with a Wells Fargo display.

Obviously, the Valley Tavern jukebox is just like all other MP3 jukeboxes with its enormous library. It just doesn’t belong here. But perhaps the presence of the MP3 jukebox truly is perfect for this Noe Valley establishment, another sign of the class changing of the guard in this neighborhood.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Mission Bar's Mediocre Greatest Hits/Best Of Collection

Mission Bar
2695 Mission St. (@ 23rd) [Map]
Total spent: $7

Known to me for a long time simply as "BAR" because of the giant red sign above the door, Mission Bar on Mission at 23rd is just far enough from the 16th Street nexus that it is never crowded on week nights and is usually navigable on the weekends, even with a crowd. Since the throngs stay away, there is plenty of opportunity to control the music, but bring a jacket if you plan to spend time there because the jukebox is positioned right behind the door at the front of the bar.

BAR's jukebox and I started off on a bad note when a friend of mine played the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes cover of "Sloop John B" off of their second album, Blow in the Wind. The covers band and their fans may think that the pop punk renditions of oldies are cute and kitschy, but they are really not, and there is no room in a jukebox for this kind of half-rate novelty crap. There is, however, room for the original classics, and fortunately BAR has several albums' worth of those. Unfortunately, a couple of them are shoddily listed, showing only song titles without the artist names. Yes, I do need to see "The Searchers" next to "Love Potion No. 9." How else will my drunk friends and I settle bets over who sings what? The track lists are the jukebox equivalent of MP3 metadata and I insist that they be accurate and complete. Critical failure, BAR.

My friend plots his aural torture.

Not that it's necessarily a bad thing, but much like the type of clientele—barflies, hipsters, neighborhood residents—BAR’s jukebox lacks consistency in selection. It ranges from Howlin’ Wolf to the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, but consists mostly of greatest hits and best of albums, and that is what makes it unremarkable. Prince's Hits, Joan Jett's Greatest Hits, even Whitesnake’s Greatest Hits, which gave me the opportunity to play an old favorite and long-time guilty pleasure, “Here I Go Again On My Own.” Clearly, there is something for everyone—including old standbys like Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Guns & Roses’ Appetite for Destruction (which I have been known to play start-to-finish on jukeboxes after the 10th beer)—but not a lot of it.

One notable gem within this otherwise mediocre collection is a Ruth Brown track on one of the properly annotated oldies compilations. Unfortunately, the R&B queen is all-too-rarely found on bar jukeboxes mainly because most of the world has no idea who she is. [I wanted to post a track for download but unfortunately Ruth Brown's albums are owned by the RIAA.] Ween’s album White Pepper is in there too, which struck me as unusual given the juke’s propensity toward oldies, blues, and punk. There are also a couple of “Mission Bar Mixes” in the juke that provide popular singles whose albums of origin are not in the jukebox. George Michael’s “Faith,” for instance, can be found on one of the custom mixes but that is the only instance of the gay Australian with the great ass.

In short, this is not the kind of jukebox that would devour the ones in your wallet. Those George Washingtons are much better used to tip the disaffected bar staff, although on a slow night the quiet might drive you to feed some Georges to the magic music machine. Finding a couple rounds of songs is not difficult, but there’s nothing that will blow your mind.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

San Francisco Songs on San Francisco Jukeboxes

I was sitting in a bar in North Beach one night, killing some time before meeting a friend for a show at Bimbo’s, and the place was full of tourists—tourists who could not keep their hands off of the jukebox. Naturally, since the bar is in North Beach, the jukebox is well stocked with all of those songs about San Francisco that I would prefer to get through a few beers without hearing several times. There are a lot of them. And apparently not only do the tourists know all of them, they also love to play them in San Francisco bars as if they need to “get into the spirit.” I lived in New York for four years and I didn’t heard Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” on jukeboxes as many times as in my two San Francisco years I’ve heard Otis Redding’s “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay.” Granted, it is an awesome song, but after the third time in the same night, that whistling bit at the end starts to grate on my nerves. I am prone to hyperbole, but I swear I am not exaggerating, I have heard it multiple times in one night on multiple occasions.

Here are five songs that San Francisco bars should banish from their jukeboxes due to outsider abuse*:

  • Scott McKenzie, “If You’re Going to San Francisco”
    Sweet-voiced McKenzie popularized this infectious pop song and the great thing about it is how it essentially chronicles a period and mood in San Francisco with its lyrics. But everybody from Nebraska to Kuala Lumpur knows this song and they are not afraid to play it. Many, many times.

  • Starship, “We Built This City”
    San Francisco-based Jefferson Airplane devolved into Starship and made one of the most banal and nauseating songs EVER. Why did this happen?

  • Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”
    I blame one particular incident for my disgust with this song’s presence in watering hole music machines. It was my first and only trip to Trad’r Sam in the Richmond. The jukebox there is horrendous, and the clientele loves this song like no other Tony Bennet song in his career history. I almost unplugged the jukebox after the 3rd play that night.

  • Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay”
    I expect that, if anybody actually ever reads this post, I stand to discredit myself with this particular opinion. But really, I can’t take it after a while. This was one of my favorite songs as a kid growing up in bumblefuck Pennsylvania, though. I love it. I listen to it frequently. But nobody can deny that it is played so often it becomes annoying.

  • Journey, “Lights”
    When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the Bay, I usually don’t want to be anywhere but in bed, assuming they really are talking about morning. I hate this song.

Five San Francisco songs that are under appreciated and should pop up more often:

  • The Animals, “San Francisco Night”
    It’s like “House of the Rising Sun” meets “Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. More bars need to have it, and more people need to love it.

  • The Staple Singers, “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay”
    This cover of Otis Redding is seriously under appreciated. It’s just the right combination of sweet and soul. If it were overplayed, I would probably start to hate it, but since I never hear it when I’m out I believe people need to care more about it.

  • Doug Sahm, “Westside Blues”
    Texas native and Bay Area transplant Doug Sahm wrote a number of songs about Bay Area towns and landmarks, but none better capture the feelings of being an outsider and homesickness inevitable for those of us who move here from elsewhere in the country. It is bluesy and goes great with a glass of bourbon. Not that I would do that sort of thing…

  • Red House Painters, “Grace Cathedral Park”
    San Francisco’s saddest resident Mark Kozelek performs frequently in the city. On his most recent tour, fans were delighted that he pulled out “Grace Cathedral Park.” It’s definitely not a happy song, but neither is life in this city all the time. Pour me an Anchor Steam and bring on the sadcore.

  • Mel Torme, “Got the Date on the Golden Gate”
    I find that Mel Torme is under appreciated in general, particularly by people of my generation, and I think it’s time to cover the world in Velvet Fog. I think this song, posing as a song about Manhattan and not San Francisco, should be our city anthem.

* Truth is, though, that I’m a bit of a hypocrite. It is not unlikely for me to use a play to hear any one of those five overplayed songs, depending on number of beers powering my decision making process.