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AMI Marks 100 Years As A Jukebox Pioneer

Posted On: 3/9/2009

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Jukebox, Digital Music, Music, Coin-Op, Vending, Grand Rapids, AMI, AMI Entertainment, Rowe, History

GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- AMI Entertainment Inc., a present-day leader in digital jukebox technology, is celebrating 100 years as a pioneer in the automatic music industry. The company's forerunner was founded in Chicago (and soon moved here) as the National Automatic Music Co. on March 15, 1909, two decades before it became the Automatic Musical Instrument Co. Arriving on the scene when pay-for-play mechanical music was still in its infancy, AMI says it is marking its 100th anniversary on a high note with some of the best technology and content services for high-tech touchscreen jukeboxes.

"In the year 1909, with a few hundred dollars, the organization that later was to grow into the Automatic Musical Instrument Company was formed," reads a prospectus, published in 1930, about the History, Organization and Personnel of AMI. "The assets of the company consisted of one automatic electric piano and two applications for U.S. patents (then not yet allowed) for a selecting device by which any desired music roll contained in a magazine could be played."

National built and operated automatic player pianos that employed vinyl music rolls similar to those used in early coin-slot phonographs. Early on, it developed technology to put multiple music rolls into player pianos. In the late 1920s, the same technology was applied to create the first AMI jukebox.

Before the jukebox, the budding concern consisted of two divisions -- an equipment manufacturer and a nationwide operator of automatic player pianos -- that merged in 1925 to form the Automatic Musical Instrument Co. The first AMI jukeboxes were popular and influential because they could play both sides of the 78-RPM records that they used. This technology was employed for three decades, changing only in capacity improvements.

AMI merged with vending machine manufacturer Rowe Corp. in 1959, and the jukebox brand that combined Rowe and AMI was established. AMI jukeboxes, and later Rowe/AMI models, were always built in Grand Rapids. From 1946 to 1959, AMI grew to become one of the top four manufacturers, equal in market share to jukebox titans Wurlitzer, Seeburg and Rock-Ola. By the 1990s, when laser compact disc boxes were dominant, Rowe/AMI held a 70% share in the U.S. jukebox market, and perhaps 60% worldwide.

AMI was reinvented in 2002 as AMI Entertainment Inc. to administer a network capable of delivering an unlimited amount of music to a vast number of jukeboxes connected to the Internet. The scalable AMI Entertainment Network is designed to support demands for more complex content, faster software for remote administration and increasing jukebox connections worldwide. AMI's development center is based outside of Chicago. Rowe continues to produce jukeboxes in Michigan.

Presently, Rowe makes three lines of purpose-built jukeboxes for the AMI network: the NiteHawk wall model offered in three colors and the freestanding Solara 2 and GrandStar in two color schemes. Rowe also offers 19 CD-to-digital conversion kits, which bring legacy jukeboxes up to date.

In the beginning, AMI provided content, too: eight selections on a player piano. Today, AMI-powered equipment can deliver more than 650,000 songs at the touch of a finger.

"The case can be made that today's AMI is doing exactly what it did 100 years ago," said John Margold, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Rowe International and AMI Entertainment. "It's providing music that can be selected and purchased by location patrons. But instead of eight choices of recorded music stored on paper rolls with perforations, we now have almost a million songs digitally encrypted. It sounds better, too. And content can now be stored remotely and played immediately. However, the basic business model is very similar in that we supply hardware, software and service."

What's different now is that AMI is a music and network provider, and in this role serves as the link between the music industry and operator. "The company licenses music, acquires publishing and performance rights, and processes royalties -- freeing the operator from all the administrative functions required to deliver and vend music for public performances. As the central administrator, AMI applies tremendous technical and financial resources to maintaining a secure network."

Over the past few years, AMI has focused on developing a versatile music library for a wide variety of listening tastes, along with easy-to-use software that enables professional vending operators to manage their jukeboxes and location playlists. Merit Entertainment and View Interactive make jukeboxes for the network. Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corp. now offers four models that ship with the AMI system. In Ireland, Almotech builds and markets a box that is managed by the AMI network. Additionally, AMI technology is employed by the jukebox industry in Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

At the start, AMI recognized that a sustainable jukebox industry requires a professional operating trade that can provide a wide array of services. In the early 1900s, there was no such thing as an "equipment operator," so the player piano company became one. As the trade began to develop during the 1930s, and intensely after the Second World War, the company concentrated on designing equipment with the operator in mind.

"This is a company that has the right stuff and knows the coin-op business," Margold said. "Our foundation is built on an understanding of operators' needs and a proven ability to deliver them superior products. We remain committed to engineering, production and service."

At the 2008 AMOA Expo, AMI Entertainment dazzled operators with a drumbeat of innovative product offerings, putting aside any doubt about its leadership position in the jukebox industry. On display were dozens of AMI-powered jukebox designs from different factories.

Even more, the modern operator had his first look at technology that could enable him to take full control of his locations' entertainment options by converging televisions, computers and cellphones with jukeboxes and touchscreen videogames. This new technology is from TAP.tv -- which stands for Targetable APplications for TV -- a hybrid TV/Internet technology that is available through a partnership with AMI and its sister company, videogame maker Merit. The trade show also unveiled AMI MegaNet, a new company that is developing on-premise promotions that will run on AMI-powered jukeboxes and online videogames.

The latest AMI services, products and jukeboxes will once again take center stage at the upcoming Amusement Showcase International in Las Vegas. During the show, AMI will host a birthday party on Thursday, March 12, at 2 p.m.

"We see the 100th anniversary of AMI as an opportunity to look forward as well as back," Margold summed up. "We'll honor the past by improving today's products, developing better ideas and strengthening our commitment to operators."