How To Be A Jukebox Hero

December 10, 2007

Life is generally not a difficult thing.  Get up, do your thing for 12 hours or so, eat a few times, try not to get yourself killed, sleep.  But there are some things that even the most educated among us sometimes struggle to grasp.  Among these things is proper care and feeding of a jukebox.

I’m a jukebox addict.  I can’t go into a bar without imposing my musical will on the patrons.  Whether it’s one of those new-fangled internet-enabled monstrosities (which tease you with the promise of a bottomless selection of music, if only you’re willing to use double the money to buy a song) or an old-school “listen to it click and whirr” classic, I always mosey over, throw in a helping of cash proportional to my estimated internment at the establishment, and wait for the opening strains of my first selection.  I try to select songs that I enjoy, as well as songs that capture the feel and flow of the venue, songs that should be universally tolerated if not lauded.

But for some people, their apparent goal is to drive everyone else from spending their hard-earned ducats at the bar, all while indulging their own questionable whims of taste.  So if you think you may be one of these people, read on and be healed, as I present the rules for proper jukebox etiquette.

  1.  Location, Location, Location.  Know where you are.  Never play Jimmy Buffett at a place that doesn’t also have a sand volleyball pit out back and one of those showers for washing off your feet.  Don’t play Ride The Lightening-era Metallica unless you’re at a biker bar.  Don’t play Dave Matthews Band at a frat bar (don’t feed the trolls).  Choose your songs appropriate to the venue.  For instance, Dropkick Murphys at an Irish pub is basically a requirement.  Use geographical common sense.
  2. Slow, Sad Sack Songs Are For Slow, Sad Sack Bars.  Last night, I was at the Ginger Man at 9:30pm or so, and some clown picked Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley.  Such a beautifully sad song.  Such a wrong moment. Never, ever play a sad song before 1 am, and even then gauge the mood.  Do not bring your sadness down on everyone else.  People do not go out and socialize with the purpose of feeling like someone just ran over their dog.  This pretty much means no Coldplay, and calls into question the wisdom of any jukebox manager who includes them on the menu.
  3. Variety Is The Spice Of Life.  Never pick more than 2 tracks off of a single cd (unless it’s a various artists thing, but even then, be careful), and for the love of all that’s good and true, don’t put the 2 back to back.  Also last night: someone picked almost half of the most recent Kings of Leon cd, played almost contiguously with the odd Thom Yorke song (see #2 above) thrown in for “balance”.  I love that cd, but the beauty of a jukebox is that you have  500+ songs to choose from.  Seven songs by the same band isn’t showing everyone how awesome they are, it’s showing the whole place that you’re too illiterate to read the titles of any of the other options.
  4. Don’t Be Too Obvious Or Too Obscure.  This is particularly tempting when you’ve got the super deluxe interweb equipped jukebox at your disposal.  Want to play Wilco’s cover of Woodie Guthrie’s Airline To Heaven?  Live or studio?  Who cares; they’re both available!  If you think that a certain song is better than any of the singles by a popular artist, be careful.  Is it really a good song, or just one you like?  Does it sound enough like the artist’s other material that people will recognize it as theirs? Will it make them curious enough to look at the jukebox to get the title of the song?  If you can answer yes, then you’ve got a winner.  On the flip-side, don’t be too obvious, either.  If you’re picking James Brown, don’t pick “I Feel Good”, grab “The Payback” or something.  If you’re picking Green Day, skip anything from Dookie.  (Actually, if you’re picking Green Day, please tell us where you got your fake ID.)
  5. Don’t Be A Smart-Aleck.  There’s a bar that I know that has the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (in its entirety) on the jukebox.  Good soundtrack.  But it also has some spoken-word tracks, dialogue from the movie.  Track 16 is the Ezekiel 25:17 scene, complete with gunfire at the end.  At the sleepy Scottish pub where this track is housed, it is not entirely cool to select this track, and may well earn you a beating with a shillelagh.   If one of the cds on your favorite jukebox has a spoken track like this, or a song that’s otherwise deliberately annoying, select it only if you’re ready to face the consequences.  Playing Semisonic’s “Closing Time” at 10pm is a crime of this variety.
  6. Get Your Money’s Worth. Long tracks are good.  You don’t want to feel cheated out of 50 cents by selecting something by Me First And The Gimme Gimmes that’s 50 seconds long.  Grab a slow burner like one of Lyle Lovett’s ballads or (best long song easily found on a jukebox) Ball & Biscuit.
  7. Jukeboxes Are Not For Karaoke.  Thus, karaoke staples need not apply.  You want people to nod along, not attempt to belt out “Don’t Stop Believing” like they’re Steve Perry’s long-lost son.   If you’ve ever seen a fat girl or an “ironic” frat boy belt it out after a few too many Red Stripes, then pass on over.
  8. You Can Never Go Wrong With A Classic.  A real classic is an song or artist who has stood the test of time.  Not of a year or even a decade.  Real time.  Cash. Ella.  The King.  B.B.  Slow Hand. Janis.  If they can be described in one word or a nickname, you’re in pretty flawless territory.

Remember, you’re creating what is basically an improv mixtape. Throwing a handful or a dozen of songs together in a way that ebbs and flows naturally is a skill, not a gift.  You get better with practice, so get out there and give it a shot.  Stick to the rules, and as always with music, innovation is only your friend when it works.  So strike with confidence and make sure it works.



  1. Amen brother!

  2. So, you picked three songs by Avril Lavigne, right?

  3. John, just because he’s so young doesn’t mean he’s a fan of the Canadian Brittany Spears.

    And speaking of playing to the venue, how about when someone played an entire CD of Greek Jazz at Agora one night? It fit, somehow, but boy did I feel out of place.

    totally agree about Jeff Buckley. His tunes are great, but you have to be in the mood, and 9pm at the G-man should never be the right time or place.

  4. Unless you’re talking about a different night, I remember it being just one track, and to call it jazz is being generous to the song (but not the genre). But it did go on forever. Equivalent to playing Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vita” anywhere but a biker bar.

  5. no- you were there too. Same night, same long and very difficult-to-listen-to Greek tunes.

  6. I still maintain that “Boogie Shoes” is the best jukebox song of all time. I mean, it totally helped my bowling score last week when we were in Buffalo.

    Gosh, I suck at life.

  7. Great post, wonderful insight!

  8. […] If you feel like dancing September 1, 2008 This is a sequel of sorts to my previous post on jukebox etiquitte, but with the twist that while it is possible (and proper) to dethrone the tyranny of the clown who […]

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