This year marks the 120th anniversary of the jukebox, and of history's first music operator. Back in 1889, San Francisco saloon owner Louis Glass invented a music playback contraption that he called Nickel in the Slot. In the process, he also launched the amusement machine industry.
Much has changed since, but the operator's role has remained surprisingly consistent. Today's operator performs 10 timeless functions that may look a little different in 2009 than they did in 1889 ... but these key functions continue to define the profession just as they did in the Victorian era of gas streetlamps, handlebar mustaches and the Nickel in the Slot.
1. An operator is a small business owner or manager. Today, more operators may do business with computers and contracts, rather than pencils and handshakes. But like his counterpart of 1889, today's operator is still personally responsible for his business and his employees -- and he's still proudly independent.
2. An operator is the indispensable liaison between manufacturers and locations. Glass was also the industry's first manufacturer, but he clearly viewed his operating role as supreme. He urged fellow operators to maintain ownership of their equipment. "Don't ever sell it," he said of those primitive coin-op music players. Today's operator remains indispensable because...
3. An operator is a technical service provider. Since Glass's day, technical demands have changed drastically. And tomorrow's operators will increasingly rely on digital networks and use the tools of remote management. But the operator will remain crucial because his technical support blends seamlessly with all the other functions on this list. No location can perform this complex role for itself as well as a professional operator can.
4. An operator is a marketing service provider. What is the operator's single most important job? Many would say "service." Actually, the most important job is to help locations get more customers and more sales. If the operator doesn't do that, all the service in the world is of no use. That's why so many successful operators are super-aggressive about leagues and tournaments, music programming, coupon promotions and other marketing disciplines.
5. An operator is an entertainment provider. Today we live in an entertainment economy. Even grocery stores and burger joints are themed locations with free leisure diversions. Meanwhile, consumers carry pocketsize videogames and jukeboxes everywhere they go. The best operators know the entertainment economy represents both their greatest competitor and opportunity. That's why...
6. An operator is a customer. The novelty entertainment business cannot be novel without a relentless focus on the new and different. The best operators are serious students of new products and passionate shoppers. They are delighted to find great new machines that their players will love.
7. An operator is a salesman. He sells his services to locations. If there is one area where today's operators need more focus, this is probably it. Ironically, the more high-tech consumers' lives (and this industry's equipment) become, the more valuable the personal touch becomes. Salesmanship is where operators provide that personal touch. But salesmanship is much more than just backslapping and sharing a beer now and then. It's understanding your customer's business and talking to him in terms of what he wants and needs.
8. An operator is a general services provider. Many operators provide location owners with anything and everything from cash loans to security and alarm systems, from outdoor heaters to bottled water, from plants and signage to personal advice.
9. An operator is a member of an embattled community. The battles are well known, ranging from smoking bans to "sin taxes." The all-important community is comprised of state and national trade associations. (And believe it or not, the industry had already figured out the need for a national operator association back in the days of Louis Glass.)
10. An operator is a member of a larger community beyond the industry. It is remarkable how generous so many operators are, in their own quiet ways, with time and money. The national trade groups' charitable foundations are only part of the picture. Many individual operators ardently support local educational efforts, faith-based charities, police and firefighter associations and orphanages, among a host of other community causes.
What do these 10 timeless functions add up to today? What does it mean to be a music and amusement operator in the new economy of 2009 -- a paradoxical place where many banks don't want to lend, and younger customers were practically born with cellphones in their hands?
The more technology and markets change, the more important it is to understand the core, underlying functions of the operator so these tasks can continue to be performed wisely and well. Today, various trade entities are rolling out bold new initiatives such as cashless operating, remote management and "virtual" offices, along with webinars and social networking as industry communications tools. Time will tell which of these innovations will work -- and which will be popular with trade members. Meanwhile, the music and games operator remains the fixed point in the center of all these swirling changes.
If by some magic Louis Glass could see what has become of the industry that he defined 120 years ago, it's easy to imagine what he would say to the hardworking businessmen and women who carry on his tradition.
"Congratulations, fellow operators. You have kept the faith and kept control of your destiny. You have continued to adapt new technology for fun and profit, and to alter your business methods to changing times. You have shown that an independent, small-business entertainment provider can be a professional who brings value to his customers and to his community. Well done."