As of this summer, the jukebox industry as a whole is finally starting to become comfortable with what many operators still call the "new" technology of downloading. Manufacturers, distributors and operators alike deserve to be applauded for keeping up with the times. By some measures, we're just about on schedule. Downloading accounts for less than 2% of total legitimate sales in the larger music industry; downloading machines may comprise around 5% of America's current installed jukebox base.
Of course, digital downloading is no longer new. It's been a prominent part of the consumer computer world for 10 or 15 years. Data downloading began to surface as a major consumer trend at a time when operators had finally begun to warm up to those "radical, new-fangled" CD jukeboxes, in the late 1980s. It was just a few years ago that music downloading really took off. So, the historic pattern earlier seen with CDs is holding true for downloading: by the time the coin-op industry finally makes peace with the "new" generation of technology, the music industry at large has already started to move toward the next best thing.
It doesn't require a crystal ball to see that the U.S. coin-op industry will spend the next decade converting CD machines to downloading units in many, perhaps most, locations. Beyond that, however, if we want to discover what lies in store for the future of the jukebox, we can begin by simply examining what's really "new" these days in the overall music business.
What's new is an explosion of MP3 sales, both online and increasingly through kiosks (and as promotional giveaways). What's new is a 31% annual expansion of broadband connections worldwide. What's new is the invention of the hugely profitable "ringtone" business, which didn't even exist five years ago. What's new is a sales explosion for music DVDs. What's new is the much-predicted "convergence" between multiple platforms and products: it has, in fact, arrived as your new PC, laptop, cell phone, Palm Pilot, etc., all have the capacity to interact with each other.
Will these exploding trends affect the jukebox of tomorrow? Yes indeed, as will the advent of affordable micro-credit transactions. A decade from now, jukeboxes may be high-speed, cable- or satellite-connected music providers that not only play songs (and music videos), but also sell these intellectual properties and embed them in consumers' portable MP3 players and portable DVD recorder/players.
By 2014, a network of 50,000 or more online jukeboxes may even have regained the coin-op industry's long-lost status as an important medium to break new artists and new albums. If so, this industry could enjoy a prominence it hasn't known for half a century, not since the creation of music radio as the dominant audio broadcast medium.
In ten years' time, jukeboxes may not only sell portable digital songs, ringtones and music videos as a sideline; they may also allow customers to pay by charging plays and purchases to their cell phone accounts.
This probably sounds exotic and far-off to many of today's operators, but here is the real mind-blower: If historic trends run true, by the time the jukebox business finally embraces these new developments, the music and entertainment industries will view them as "old news" - and will already be well launched toward the next new "new horizon."Not all of these changes may occur, and those that do won't happen all at once or universally. But surely some of them will. If that sounds like a lot of change to adjust to, it is. Still, operators may take comfort from one fact that has remained constant over the century-plus history of this device: No matter how sophisticated the jukebox becomes, and no matter how varied its media, functions and payment methods, operators can rely on this ever-evolving product to remain at the heart of the pay-for-play amusement machine industry.