Why jukeboxes are making a comeback

The last two manufacturers of the vinyl record-playing machines speak about their appeal in the modern world

If the popularity of vinyl records is anything to go by, with an interest in these vintage discs increasing year on year, it's perhaps no surprise that the appeal of old-school jukeboxes is growing, too.

“People do tend to be pretty stunned when I tell them what we do,” says Chris Black. “They’re amazed these things are still even being manufactured.” And yet Sound Leisure, the third-generation family business of which Black is managing director, can’t make enough jukeboxes at the moment – those colourful, playful boxes symbolic of Americana that are a seemingly anachronistic and outmoded form of record-playing. After all, the first multi-selection coin-operated phonograph was introduced way back in 1906.

“We have the largest order books we’ve ever had,” says Black.

Alexander Walder-Smith echoes this. For decades his family-run Games Room Company imported jukeboxes for a slowly dying pub and bar trade. But in 2019, he took the bold move to not only buy Rock-Ola, one of the four great historic makers of the machines alongside Wurlitzer, Seeberg and AMI, but also to start making them the way they used to be made. It means Sound Leisure and Rock-Ola are the last two manufacturers of vinyl record-playing jukeboxes in the world.

Walder-Smith says Rock-Ola's business has trebled in the past two years. “The revival of interest in vinyl records has certainly helped inspire a nostalgia for jukeboxes,” he says. "People love the tactility and more personal aspect of vinyl – even younger people who perhaps see it as a reaction against the on-demand digital age. That's [also] been the case with jukeboxes.”

Certainly their appeal – with prices anywhere between Dh37,000 ($10,000) and Dh500,000 for a bespoke model – goes beyond nostalgia. Black says there are several reasons a jukebox might appeal, even though most music is streamed on the move. “They’re very pleasing to look at, for a start, and they provide a focal point for a room, like an Aga oven might for a kitchen,” he says. “But, more than that, they provide a sense of theatre that today’s throwaway tech doesn’t.

“I once had a customer wave his phone at me and ask why he’d ever want a jukebox when he had millions of songs at his fingertips. So I sent him over to a jukebox and, as he selected a song, pressed the buttons, watched the record be picked up and the needle come out, he had a big grin on his face. Streaming, he realised, is a service. But it’s not a pleasure. There’s no emotion in it.”

Perhaps there’s even a symbolic quality to the jukebox. Not for nothing did it keep bouncing back through history, after, for example, the advent of radio as an alternative source of free entertainment, and after the Great Depression of the 1930s, when it became a totem of the return of good times.

That a "true" jukebox (the name comes from word ‘jook’, slang for dancing wildly) plays music mechanically, not digitally, is typically crucial to most fans – it’s akin to the difference, for watch aficionados, between a mechanical and digital movement. But there’s also a recognition that today’s new-build jukeboxes – less merely a feat of technology as of craft, bringing together wood, glass, metal, electronics and even liquids into a hand-built piece of sonic cabinetry – also have to at least to keep up with the times, even if they don’t embody them.

Hence the jukeboxes of both Sound Leisure – which is based in Leeds in the UK – and the reborn, but still California-based Rock-Ola, can also be configured to play CDs, and are also Bluetooth-enabled. They use LEDs to create the rotating round of fluorescent lights, rather than the bulbs of old. The liquid used in those signature bubble tubes, long ago discovered to be carcinogenic, has also been replaced with a safe alternative. And the plastics used are reinforced, just in case your party gets a little too wild.

This is one of the advantages of buying new, over the equally buoyant market for restored vintage jukeboxes. “Of course, there are people who want an original, period jukebox, much as there are some people who want a classic car and not a new one,” says Black. "But the maintenance and sometimes the search for rare replacement parts puts a lot of people off. Besides, purists are less and less sniffy because they appreciate that we’re adding to jukebox history. The jukeboxes we make will be around in another 50 years. They’ll be handed down through generations, much as the old ones have been.”

It’s not really the modernisation of the jukebox that sells it in so much as its retained authenticity – in build, performance and, of course, style. Rock-Ola survived as a brand over recent decades by making digital jukeboxes. And with the advent of the CD, Sound Leisure soon stopped making vinyl-playing jukeboxes altogether, and never expected to make them again. But now, both companies are focused on riding the vinyl renaissance and staying true to the classic jukebox aesthetic.

Conscious that not all markets around the world have a history of buying and enjoying ‘45s – small vinyl records that play a single song either side, and the kind typically found in a jukebox – Sound Leisure, for example, has recently introduced a jukebox with a patented changer for 20 LPs, or album-length vinyl records. Rock-Ola, meanwhile, is set to reissue a series of its original, and much-copied designs from the 1950s.

Walder-Smith says jukeboxes are "party pieces with a fantastic, evocative look to them that is still part of the public consciousness, even if you don’t see them around so much anymore”. But, that, it seems, may all be about to change.

Updated: October 17th 2021, 4:22 AM