IT CAN USUALLY be found in the darkest corner—standing like a loner with its back to the wall. It’s not the first thing you see when you enter a bar, but it’s probably the first thing you’ll hear. More than just decoration or a piece of furniture, a jukebox can be the defining characteristic of a bar—arguably as important, if not more so, than the drinks themselves. A spot with a good jukebox is memorable. People are loyal to a good jukebox. For just a pocketful of change, any drunkard can be DJ for the night, as long as he or she keeps feeding quarters into the slot.
“CDs in a jukebox should reflect the personality of a bar,” says Jason Youngers, owner of SE 34th’s Side Street Tavern.
For the bar’s 11-year existence, Side Street has maintained one of the city’s most regularly rotated jukes, featuring the latest Beach House and A$AP Ferg records, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and, inexplicably, Burt Bacharach’s greatest hits.
“If I go to a bar in Gresham, I want it to be filled with Alan Jackson,” Youngers says. “And if I go to a punk bar, there’d better be punk.”
Jukeboxes first came into popularity in the mid-20th century, loaded with the latest 45 RPM records. Since three-quarters of all records produced in America at that time were delivered straight to jukeboxes, often the only way to catch the latest hit single was to visit the local pub or diner. Vinyl records were replaced by compact discs in the latter half of the century, and what the jukebox lost in sound quality, it gained in song selection. While diminished in popularity, jukeboxes nonetheless remained an important fixture in the new millennium—though most are relegated to dive bars and pizza joints.
These days, the old, CD-flipping jukebox is a relic, much like CDs themselves. As 78s were replaced with 45s, which were in turn replaced with CDs, the internet has steadily displaced CD jukeboxes with bright, digital interfaces, making the entire music world available with just the touch of a finger. In Portland, however, there remain a handful of holdouts, unwilling to let go of their classic jukeboxes—a decision that goes beyond sentimental reasons. When a bar’s owner and staff load up a jukebox with music, they are effectively defining the bar’s character.
The Nest Lounge on SE Belmont has dedicated half their jukebox to local artists, from Red Fang to Dead Moon, while the other half reads like a tour of pop music history, with Foo Fighters’ debut album alongside Entertainment Weekly’s Greatest Hits 1976.
“When we first got the machine, it was straight out of 1993,” says Amy, a bartender at the Nest. “Everything in there was either Matchbox 20 or the Goo Goo Dolls.”
She was tasked with replacing the music on the jukebox, one disc at a time, but many CDs that came with the jukebox have remained, much to her and others’ consternation.
“There’s always the person who puts on Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt,’ and I always fast-forward it. No one wants to hear that song while they’re in a bar, trying to have fun.”
Choosing music for the bar is a great privilege, but with any great privilege comes great responsibility. Like any good DJ, it’s important to consider others, especially the bartender. Many places stock their jukeboxes exclusively with music that fits the character of the establishment and the neighborhood.
On the jukebox at Central Eastside’s Speakeasy Tavern, you’ll find Operation Ivy, Mos Def, and the Exploding Hearts. At the (World Famous) Kenton Club, in the traditionally working-class Kenton neighborhood, you’ll find their jukebox packed with plenty of classic country, blues, and punk—Hank Williams Sr. alongside Hank III. Slow Bar, on SE Grand, stocks their jukebox predominantly with metal—Dio, Iron Maiden, and others. According to one server, Slow Bar has “probably the only jukebox with Saxon on it.” (After some investigation, it was discovered that Sizzle Pie’s downtown location also has Saxon on its jukebox.)
A good jukebox was once a point of pride. The now-closed North Portland dive bar the Jockey Club famously proclaimed on their sign, “Our Jukebox Can Kick Your Jukebox’s Ass.” Many bars in the city still operate with that same mentality.
The jukebox in the ramshackle-kitsch Southeast bar Roadside Attraction boasts what is likely the greatest jazz collection in the city, with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Nina Simone. (On a recent Friday night, however, a large birthday party was regrettably exhausting the jukebox’s ample disco selection.) Roadside Attraction’s jukebox is always free, though this fact isn’t prominently advertised.
“We don’t block the coin slot,” explains Scotty Hesedahl, a bartender there. “The way we see it is, if you’re dumb enough to keep putting quarters into it, we’ll take them.”
Sloan’s Tavern, opened in 1979 by Bob Sloan and his wife Shirley, has changed very little since.
Aside from the multiple big-screen TVs, most of the decor is unchanged—from the gaudy, flower-print carpet, to the giant semi-truck cab jutting from the building’s exterior. Since its inception, the Boise-Eliot neighborhood institution has also maintained one of a small number of the country’s only working Chicago Coin’s Band Boxes. The Band Box plays original 45 records, while an animatronic big band—singer, drums, and horns—gyrates unsteadily on top of the machine.
You won’t find any big band music on the Band Box, however, or on the CD jukebox near it. And you definitely won’t find any punk, hip-hop, metal, or anything past 1985. At Sloan’s Tavern, your quarters will buy you the latest, greatest hits from the likes of George Strait, Garth Brooks, the Charlie Daniels Band, and the Judds. But you wouldn’t want to listen to anything else here. The music selection on the two jukeboxes owes much to the preference—and now the memory—of Bob Sloan, who passed away in 2013.
“All our old customers [who] come in, they play these songs because they remind them of Bob,” Shirley says. “And he was here every night, so it’s kind of nostalgic.”
Of the remaining, classic jukeboxes in Portland, none is as central (or gets the most play) as the one onstage at Mary’s Club. At the city’s oldest strip club, dancers choose their own songs from the jukebox at stage left, unceremoniously punching their selections into the glowing machine before beginning their set. As with any other jukebox, this one, too, needs to be fed, and the dancers will periodically request money from the audience to keep the music going, resulting in a surge of dollar bills thrown onto the stage. As with any other classic jukebox, this one also requires regular maintenance.
“It plays 15 to 16 hours a day,” says Vicki Keller, longtime owner of Mary’s Club. “The motor wears out or the speakers—whatever’s wrong, if they can’t fix it, we just buy another one.”
Malfunctions and breakdowns are frequent for classic jukeboxes, and every bar proprietor that owns one either knows how to do the repair themselves—as is the case with the Sloan family—or has the phone number of one of the few remaining repairmen in the area.
“They’re all old guys and they’re dying fast,” explains Casey Maxwell, owner of SE Belmont’s Conquistador Lounge. “So if you can find somebody who knows how to work with [classic jukeboxes], you stick with them.”
The Conquistador is home to one of the city’s most visually stunning jukeboxes—a 1975 Rock-Ola 460, which plays 45s, sounds as warm as a summer afternoon and looks like the command center of the starship Enterprise.
“If you get the right single, the right era, it just sounds beautiful,” Maxwell says. (Voodoo Doughnut Too, on the Eastside, also possesses a 45-playing Rock-Ola, but good luck reaching it through the crowd of picture-snapping tourists and screaming children.)
Maxwell purchased his jukebox when he and his wife opened the bar in late 2011, and he keeps it stocked with a rotating selection of classic rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and soul 45s. It’s also free to play—no quarters required. It’s entirely a labor of love. But, as it requires routine maintenance every few months, repairmen are hard to find, and replacement parts are often difficult to come by, one day even love might not justify the labor put into it.
Many local bars have opted to wash their hands of their old, unreliable machines, and have replaced them with the more dependable internet jukeboxes. Portland institutions such as Joe’s Cellar, Ash Street Saloon, Marathon Taverna, My Father’s Place, and the Original Hotcake House have all embraced the new technology. The most popular internet jukebox manufacturer, TouchTunes, lists two dozen such machines in Portland.
With access to millions upon millions of songs, some customers prefer digital jukeboxes for their virtually limitless selection, the ability to request songs via mobile app without leaving your barstool, and the option to jump in line by paying more money. Many bar owners also prefer digital jukeboxes, as they require much less maintenance than their antiquated counterparts. From a financial standpoint, internet jukeboxes are more cost effective—not only because they are more durable, but because they provide relief from the complicated and often murky world of music publishing and copyright law.
Under US Copyright Law (Title 17, Section 106), any business or public establishment that provides music, either prerecorded or a live band, must obtain permission from the copyright owners—namely, the songwriters and/or music publishers. The Big Three of music publishers—ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC—each require separate fees for use of their property, and then pay royalties to the copyright owners.
According to numerous bar owners interviewed for this article, music licensing companies routinely send representatives, usually in secret, to listen to a business’ music. If a bar, restaurant, or venue is discovered playing songs that have not been authorized by their respective publishers, they are in violation of copyright law, may be liable for copyright infringement, and could be saddled with fines ranging from $750 to $150,000 per unauthorized performance. Licensing fees vary, depending on the size of room and the number of customers, and can add up to thousands of dollars annually. These fees are also subject to indiscriminate changes, which can be arbitrary and confusing. A common procedure for bars with a jukebox is to obtain authorization from the Jukebox License Office, which distributes the necessary fees to ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. A Jukebox License Agreement, which ensures the use of most copyrighted songs, is nearly $500 a year.
In contrast, when a bar has an internet jukebox, the owner joins a digital music subscription and service agreement, which clears or authorizes the use of copyrighted material. As opposed to 25 cents per song on most CD jukeboxes, the dollar or more you pay on an TouchTunes machine is divided up among the bar owner, the music subscription service, and the licensing companies, creating less of a headache for the establishment, and fewer visits from clandestine licensing representatives.
But what is lost when a bar replaces their old CD-flipper with a digital interface? What happens to a bar’s character when a carefully curated selection is abandoned in favor of unlimited choice? As when your neighborhood mom ‘n’ pop store is replaced by a WalMart, convenience and conformity can also breed contempt. Downtown Portland’s diviest dive bar, Yamhill Pub, replaced their old jukebox, which frequently had to be repaired, with an internet jukebox.
“The good thing about [the internet jukebox] is, you’ll hear something you’ve never heard before,” says Benjamin Bay, a bartender at Yamhill Pub. “The bad thing about them is, you’ll hear something you’ve never heard before.”
Another downtown institution, the Roxy, replaced their CD jukebox—which the staff contributed to for 20 years—with an internet jukebox.
“The old one was a compilation of all of our personalities in a machine,” explains Beth Hall, a server at the Roxy. “And now it’s music that none of us ever want to hear.”
Some bars, like East Burnside’s B-Side Tavern, are steadfast in their commitment to their classic jukes.
“We will never have an internet jukebox,” says manager Drew Hansen. “If people came in here and had the freedom of the whole internet to choose from, that would be a nightmare.”
“A juke should represent the crowd and represent your bar,” Side Street Tavern’s Youngers says. “And you lose that as long as you allow them to download Britney Spears.”
SE Belmont’s Hanigan’s Tavern (popularly known as the Vern) experimented years ago with an internet jukebox. Staff and customers rebelled. After two weeks they got rid of it and brought back the CD jukebox. Their machine is now stocked mostly with classic punk, metal, and rockabilly, from Nick Cave to Little Richard.
On a recent weeknight at the Vern, sitting by himself at the bar and nursing a can of Pabst, a young man stood up from his stool and disappeared into the next room. A moment later he returned, and the jukebox began an uninterrupted run of classic punk.
“Is this the Vandals?” someone wanted to know.
The man shook his head. “The Weirdos.”
As the city undergoes its many unrelenting changes, and as favorite institutions are routinely displaced by shinier replacements, it’s become easy to give way to cynicism and dejection. Everyone has his or her opinion as to what “Old Portland” is, and when the smoke clears, there’s no telling what “New Portland” will look like, which makes it all the more important to appreciate what we have while we still have it.
Often, all it takes is good character, a little nostalgia, and a pocketful of quarters.