GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Rowe International Corp.’s one-millionth jukebox, a digital NiteStar that connects to the AMI Entertainment Network, Rowe’s online music management service, rolled off the assembly line on July 11. The milestone represents the company’s 97 years of ingenuity in the automatic music industry, from the design and manufacture of automatic player pianos and 78-RPM and 45-RPM coin phonographs to laser compact disc and digital downloading jukeboxes.
“Since the early days of the automatic music industry, Rowe has been making musical history and advancing jukebox technology,” said John Margold, Rowe’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing, who presided over the jukebox’s unveiling. “Back then, we were the first company to play both sides of a record. Today, Rowe is the only factory that maintains an online music service to support its jukeboxes, offering even more value to the coin-operated amusement industry. The strong acceptance of NiteStar, and all of Rowe’s new Internet-access jukeboxes, has helped us realize the extraordinary accomplishment of manufacturing one million jukeboxes.”
Deeply rooted in American culture, the jukebox has played a central role in the music industry for almost a century, helping to promote and establish numerous artists across the nation. Rowe, the oldest and largest manufacturer of coin-operated jukeboxes, has contributed greatly to the jukebox’s fortunes throughout the 20th century, Margold observed. Its jukebox business dates back to 1909 when the National Automatic Music Co., with only $200 in working capital, began leasing and building automatic electrical player pianos. The company’s manufacturing division, National Piano Manufacturing Co., operated as a separate entity.
Early 20th century player pianos, which played music without the need for a human pianist, were controlled by mechanical or pneumatic means; today they are electronic. They were popular in the early 1900s, around the same time the acoustic gramophone became fashionable. For its player piano, National held two patents for a “selecting device” that allowed the patron to pick any desired music roll in the magazine to play.
“It had only six selections from which to choose – nothing like the quarter-million-plus array available on today’s digital jukeboxes, which offer on-demand access to an unlimited amount of songs stored in a remote music library,” the Rowe vice-president said.
From the start, National Automatic Music was based in Grand Rapids, the boyhood home of President Gerald R. Ford Jr. In 1922, the player piano maker moved into a facility located at 1500 Union Avenue, a site previously occupied by a manufacturer of horse-drawn hearses, where it has been building jukeboxes ever since.
In 1925, National Automatic Music, which operated some 4,200 player pianos, and National Piano Manufacturer merged their business activities to form the Automatic Musical Instrument Co., and the newly created AMI would become an enduring symbol of jukebox Americana. AMI acquired a record-changing mechanism from inventor B.C. Kenyon. The apparatus allowed the factory to make use of the then-modern 78-RPM low-fi disc, the first electrically recorded music technology, and enter the budding jukebox market, which would soon make player pianos obsolete.
At the same time in Los Angeles, an American inventor named William Rowe devised a cigarette vending machine that began a trend toward selling higher-priced merchandise in the emerging automatic merchandising sector. Before the Rowe cigarette machine, merchandise venders were primarily limited to dispensing penny gum and candy. Four decades later, the vending machine business he founded would unite with AMI during a period of large-scale mergers and acquisitions that was a part of the postwar full-line vending revolution.
The Automatic Canteen Co., a nationwide vending operation undergoing rapid expansion, acquired Rowe Manufacturing Co. Inc. in the mid-1950s and soon after bought AMI in 1959, merging the two units into a manufacturing subsidiary called Rowe AC Services. Canteen, which redirected its focus on foodservice, eventually divested the manufacturing division and Rowe continued to build jukeboxes under the Rowe/AMI name, along with a full line of vending machines.
Today, Rowe is owned by Harbour Group Ltd. (St. Louis, MO), a privately held company that specializes in the acquisition and development of manufacturing concerns for long-term investment. Harbour Group established its Entertainment Products Group in December 2002 with the acquisition of Bensalem, PA-based Merit Industries, the leading maker of touchscreen video game products, and added Rowe in November 2003.
During the CD era of the late 1980s and ‘90s, Rowe grew to be the dominant jukebox manufacturer, commanding an estimated 65% to 70% of the domestic jukebox market share and 55% to 60% worldwide. In 2003, Rowe sold its vending business to apply all its engineering and marketing resources to the pursuit of new opportunities in the digital jukebox market. As part of that initiative, Rowe launched its AMI Entertainment Inc. subsidiary, which provides and manages digital music content, software and networking technology for today’s Internet-access jukeboxes. Rowe also continues to design, market and build money-changing machines for the carwash, laundry and vending industries.
The jukebox industry of which Rowe is a significant part got underway in earnest during the post-Depression era. “Juke joints – the colloquial term for an informal establishment featuring blues music, dancing and alcoholic drinks – sprang up everywhere,” Margold explained.
High production volume at the Grand Rapids jukebox plant continued until the Second World War. Not unlike many other American factories, AMI suspended production to retool for the war effort from 1940 until 1945. The company resumed jukebox production in 1946 and its Model A, affectionately known as the “Mother of Plastic” because of its opalescent plastics and colored glass gemstones, was the first box to roll off the postwar production line.
“The postwar years saw a nation hungry for entertainment, and the AMI factory ran at full capacity producing 100 machines per day for 245 working days annually to feed that appetite,” the Rowe executive said. This boom lasted several years, during which time the jukebox industry benefited from – and contributed to – a surge of new audio technology.
The modern jukebox emerged in the late 1940s and enjoyed explosive growth in the following decade as the hi-fi vinyl micro-groove 45-RPM record, replacing 78-RPM technology, became the dominant recorded music format.
“The popular culture period defined by malt shops and bobby soxers fueled the demand for inexpensive entertainment,” Margold said. “Before artists had the opportunity to promote to the public their new recordings on the radio, the jukebox was the best way for the music industry to reach out to record-buying patrons. Any establishment with a jukebox was the best place for music lovers to hear their favorite artists’ new recordings. And while jukeboxes gave the public a method to hear the hot new songs, the designs developed by the engineers of Rowe also created a stylish look for the jukebox.”
Many of the classic models from the various jukebox eras are on exhibit today in Rowe’s jukebox museum in Grand Rapids. Their unique styles reflect the periods they served. The stylized “Art Deco” motif of the 1930s gave way to “Arts and Crafts” themes and then to the “Classic Mid-Century Design” and the flamboyant sci-fi designs of the 1960s. “Some of these early designs are a far cry from present-day computer-driven jukeboxes,” Rowe’s John Margold said, “but they were the modern marvels of their time.”
While Rowe has earned its place in history as one of the most influential organizations in the coin-operated music industry, its new jukeboxes, also on display in the museum, illustrate how skillfully the company has kept pace with, and taken full advantage of, today’s information technology to provide the 21st century patron with the best musical entertainment available.
Proof of this capability, which has enabled Rowe to adapt to technological and social changes, is the cumulative production of one million machines. Jukebox number 1,000,000, an AMI-powered NiteStar floor model, features both broadband and dialup functionality. It offers the patron a choice of more than a quarter-million songs and the ability to enter searches by easily defined criteria. NiteStar also allows patrons to pay a premium to move their selection to the front of the queue, and to use coins, bills or credit cards to make purchases. And music vendors can apply genre filters to tailor content for a jukebox location’s music tastes, and customize selections according to the time of day and the day of the week.