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Mon, May 29, 2006 - Page 10 News List

Barflies give Web jukeboxes mixed reviews


The Sevens, a beer-and-wine tavern with an oak bar worn smooth by decades of drinkers, has two amenities that set it apart: a real cork dart board, and arguably one of the best jukeboxes east of the Mississippi River.

From early Bruce Springsteen and Patsy Cline to rare Rolling Stones tunes, the jukebox -- more than the darts or the dark wood benches -- sets a rollicking mood that pulls people through the door.

This spring, the tavern took a leap into the digital age with a new Internet-fueled jukebox that can access hundreds of thousands of songs.

"I love it," says James McCarthy, 39, a kitchen worker who feeds the wall-mounted machine US$25 a night to keep his toes tapping behind the bar. "You can go back and forth from hearing old Aerosmith to all of the sudden you'll hear C+C Music Factory to country-western."

At tens of thousands of bars and restaurants in the US, patrons can now listen to songs stored on hard drives or downloaded from remote servers. Some find the change a refreshing departure from the limited selection of records or CDs of old jukeboxes.

Others lament the transformation of an American icon.

They say the smaller collections of compact discs or 45s in traditional jukeboxes gave barrooms a distinct feel that gets washed away by the new technology's nearly unlimited choice and flashy screens reminiscent of video poker machines.

"I feel like you have the option to find more songs, but there's not as much personality," says Kate Nies, 26, who feeds her dollars to a traditional chrome CD jukebox in Charlie's Kitchen in Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Montreal-based TouchTunes Music has supplied 17,000 digital jukeboxes across the US -- and provides access to a digital library of a million songs through a dial-up or broadband Internet connection.

Nostalgia has its place, but today's music fans demand more, says John Taylor, president of San Francisco-based Ecast, which supplies the software and provides music for 7,500 jukeboxes entirely over broadband Internet connections.

"The 100-CD jukebox maps the old world," says Taylor, whose company sells 300 new Internet jukeboxes a month. "Our products meet what young people want today as far as choice."

Jukebox makers -- such as Rock-Ola -- build machines that house the Ecast technology, from sleek wall models to classics that look like something Arthur Fonzarelli would have elbowed on the sitcom Happy Days.

The contemporary Ecast models are like giant wall-mounted iPods, with high-resolution touch screens that flash with advertisements as customers use their fingers to troll for tunes. Inside each machine is a hard drive loaded with up to 300 albums and costing an average of US$0.50 per song, with owners setting their own prices.

For a few more credits, patrons connect to the Internet to download a track from Ecast's digital library from servers in Sunnyvale, California, that hold more than 18,000 albums. More quarters allow customers to jump their turn in line so their songs play next.

At the Sevens in Boston, McCarthy says that the diversity is the new jukebox's strength. He no longer hears Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire at least eight times a night, as he did with the old CD model.

The online catalog includes so many obscure tracks, McCarthy says he found something by the Pittsburgh symphony and two albums from the Ohio State Marching Band.

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