With the older jukebox model, selection was necessarily limited but in tune with the character of a place. “No matter how much work was put into choosing a bar’s jukebox music, it was a selection. Certain music fit in certain bars,” Philadelphia magazine’s Dan McQuade lamented in 2012, after his favorite watering hole fell to the TouchTunes revolution. “Every bar’s jukebox is becoming the same.”
In an October 2009 column, The Bollard’s Chris Busby had a similar gripe: “TouchTunes dictates and homogenizes the experience of listening to music,” much like commercial radio.
But something about the nature of Busby and McQuade’s complaints smacks of rock-ist romanticism. Music is never a neutral topic and the staunch protection of a certain way of doing things resists cultural evolution and can amount to a subtle form of discrimination. The songs played on jukeboxes, be they radio hits or dad-music antiques, are selected by real people. But even with TouchTunes installed, some bars have found ways to protect their vibes—or seen another way, filter out certain clientele—with the targeted exclusion of certain genres. Last year, Gina Heeb of the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s The Daily Cardinal found that over a dozen popular rap artists—such as Drake, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West—had been deleted from the TouchTunes listings of prominent, campus-adjacent bars. One owner didn’t want “gangster hip-hop” at his establishment, which was, as he told Heeb, a “safety-driven” decision—a not-so-subtle implication that black music, which attracts black patrons, means danger. Not all vibes are good vibes.
But if there’s a happy collaboration between past and present, old and new regulars, I’m still not sure TouchTunes is it. The very features that make the app feel liberatory transform it into an un-fun experience for the bar at large as selfishness takes over the deeper into the night you go. Murphy admits he likes to “feel like the bar is at my mercy” when using the app, and while Slavik will defer the playlist when the songs align with her interests, “on the other hand, if I hate the songs, I’ll often spend extra credits to jump the queue and have my songs played first”—a feature called a “fast pass.” On a slow night, this places the song up next, but as the queue grows longer and these fast passes accumulate, you might still have to wait a while, even if you pay extra. “It does get annoying when so many people are also fast-passing that you get added to a 15-song fast-pass queue, which defeats the purpose of spending the extra money,” says Slavik. Fellow bar-goers can turn to adversaries, each one trying to get their songs played first. Sometimes a fast pass is the only way to ensure a song will be played before closing time.
While it’s a comfort to know that you will not be at the mercy of one bartender’s iPod, playing DJ isn’t all TouchTunes promises it to be. The app replaces the predictable rhythms of a local bar environment with the possibility of something choppier, if or when someone decides to supersede the sonic lay of the land. The classic contract between bar and patron is dated, but practical. You provide liquor and ambiance, I offer legal tender and agree to not make a mess. But while TouchTunes undermines that agreement, the most disruptive force is enabling people’s own desires. The age of social media and customized entertainment primes users to expect their tech to adjust to their habits and preferences. Just as auto-fill in web browsers intuits our favorite websites and Netflix adjusts to our tastes, TouchTunes most simply makes the personal more immediate.