Jukeboxes were social media, one quarter at a time

I saw something the other day that I hadn’t seen in years: a jukebox.

I don’t mean one that plays CDs. I mean a real, honest-to-God jukebox that plays 45 rpm records.

We were out in the country, about 30 miles south of Nashville, and we stopped for lunch at this mom-and-pop place by the highway. I knew there was a real jukebox in the room as soon as I walked in and heard Alan Jackson singing “Little Bitty.” I knew because the sound was grungy and a little bleary, like the band had been out partying too late the night before.

Old jukeboxes sound that way because of bad speakers and because of the records themselves. I know guys who swear vinyl sounds better than digital, but I don’t think anyone would defend the 45.

I bought a lot of singles as a kid, and I was a disc jockey back in high school, and I don’t think there was a lot of quality control at the record plant. You’d pull a 45 out of the shuck and it might be warped, or the hole in the middle might be a little off-center, so even new records sounded wobbly.

On top of that, a vinyl record dies a little every time you play it. When the needle rides along the groove, it wears the music away. The music starts to fade. The sound isn’t as crisp. The highs and lows give way to a murky middle.

That’s the sound I heard when we walked in the restaurant.

“Look at this!” I said.

The jukebox had a window, and I wanted the kids to see how it worked, how pressing A-6 makes the mechanical arm slide down a rail until it finds the record you want then grabs it and holds it upright against the turntable. My kids, who’ve grown up with iPods and Pandora, couldn’t have cared less.

We were the only ones there besides the owner, so I played whatever I wanted — the jukebox was stocked mostly with country records, so I played some Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson — and I flashed back to high school and the peer pressure that goes along with playing a jukebox.

When you play a song on a jukebox, you’re telling everyone within earshot who you are.

Every song is a statement, and there is nothing worse than pressing the wrong buttons and playing Barry Manilow instead of the Boss.

Pandora and Spotify share your playlists with your friends online. Jukeboxes did that in real life, one quarter at a time.

Photo by Anonymous Account (Flickr)

Kindles make it harder to show people how smart you think you are


Came across an interesting statistic the other day: Digital books are outselling hardcovers these days.

This is one of those statistics that’s supposed to say something Important and Significant about the state of the world, like the claim that salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States, which is usually cited to illustrate the growing influence of Latinos on the U.S. economy but could as easily mean that nobody doesn’t like salsa.

The economy’s still kind of wobbly, digital books are cheaper than hardcover books, so, of course, they’re going to outsell hardcovers.

This doesn’t bother me. I’m basically a glass-half-full* kind of guy. I’m just glad people are reading. I’m especially glad people are still willing to pay money to read.
What’s more, digital books make it easier to buy books you ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead with. I can’t imagine Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a bestseller if the women buying it couldn’t buy it online, anonymously.
However, there is a downside to the shift toward digital books: With a Kindle, it’s harder to show people how smart you think you are.
For a serious reader, a book is like a trophy case. The books you choose to display tell people what you’ve read, what you’re thinking about, how you look at the world.
When I walk into someone’s home, the first thing I look for is a bookshelf, or, absent that, a book. If you have books, there’s a good chance we’ll become good friends, especially if it turns out you’ve read a lot of the same books I have, especially if you have some literary or obscure book I love that most people haven’t heard of.
You can’t do that with a Kindle.
Your e-reader could be loaded with great books, but no one’s ever going to know it. You could open the bookshelf on your Kindle and leave it lying conspicuously on the coffee table when you go answer the door, but the screen will probably go dark before anyone notices.
Likewise, when you visit someone’s house, you can’t really start thumbing through someone’s Kindle. That would be like flipping through someone’s diary. It would be rude, and there’s a chance you’ll see things you can’t unsee (such as those Fifty Shades of Grey sequels).
Without a bookcase to help you, your only option is feeling the other person out, which can be tricky. If you walk into someone’s house, and there’s a bookshelf, you tend to pick up on the titles you recognize or like (Love in the Time of Cholera, for example) and ignore the titles you don’t (such as Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, which is a real book and not something I just made up).
If you ask someone, “Read any good books lately?” you’re putting the other person on the spot. They’re under pressure now to come up with a book they think you might like. If they say Kitty Knits: Projects for Cats and Their People, and you’re a dog person, or they try to play it safe and say, “Oh, I’ve been so busy, I don’t really have time to read,” well, what might have been a beautiful friendship may be dead in the water.
This doesn’t mean Kindles are a bad thing. I think they’re really useful. I love hearing about a book then having a copy seconds later. I love being able to download public-domain titles such as Walden or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn free of charge. Plus, unlike paper books, Kindles let you play Angry Birds and stream Netflix. (There is a hack for this, of course: Simply draw a little cartoon on the bottom corner of every page then flip the pages to see it move.)
I’m just saying new technologies bring new challenges, new challenges that, sooner or later, someone will write a digital book about.
*Technically, I’m a glass-is-completely-full kind of guy. The bottom half of the glass is full of water. The top half of the glass is full of air. So there.

Guess you’re stuck with that Spin Doctors CD, or ‘The Do Not Never Ever Buy List’

Laurie’s Planet of Sound, a used record store in Chicago, has leaked its do-not-buy list.

It includes the Spin Doctors, 10,000 Maniacs, Joan Osbourne, Alanis Morrisette and Sting and pretty much every other singer or band you thought was cool in the ’80s and ’90s.

“The Do Not Never Ever Buy List” isn’t “a list of music we don’t like,” Laurie’s says on its Facebook page. It’s ” just stuff that we watch molecularly break-down on the shelves due to lack of interest.”

In other words, it’s a list of music nobody likes.

OK, that isn’t fair.

Someone likes it, or they did, once. That’s why there are so many copies of the Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full of Kryptonite out there.

You have to remember that 21 years ago you couldn’t download “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” or “Two Princes” from Amazon or iTunes, because there was no Amazon or iTunes. If you wanted the singles, you bought the album.

Pocket Full of Kryptonite
Pocket Full of Kryptonite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pocket Full of Kryptonite was huge. According to the RIAA, it sold upwards of 5 million copies. Quintuple platinum. So, when people got tired of listening to “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” the supply of used CDs pretty quickly outweighed the demand.

Laurie’s doesn’t want any more Spin Doctors CDs because it doesn’t think it can sell them. It isn’t personal. It’s business.

If you’re like me, you have spent a small fortune over the years on music. Used to, I’d cull the ones I didn’t listen to anymore and sell them or trade them in, but a few years ago, the used record stores stopped buying. I understood why, but it still stings a little to think my CD collection is literally worthless, even to me. The music itself is still worth something, but it’s all on a hard drive.