Records whirl nickels into a $10/000/000 jack pot a year for the operators of Canada’s gaudy mechanized music cabinets
ROBERT L. GOWE
THE juke-box people, chortling over their piles of nickels, are beaming more broadly than ever these days and don’t
hate anybody. And the bobby soxers and the hepcats go their own unfettered way little knowing why the tradesmen who make their nickels add up to $10 millions are so happy. As a matter of fact it’s doubtful if very many of the gals in the plaid skirts and sweaters and the lads of the dangling shirttails ever heard of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council or the Canadian Performing Right Society.
Yet it is Lord Russell of Killowen, Viscount Maugham, Lord MacMillan, Lord Porter and Lord Simonds, five of the august, ermined law lords of the Privy Council, who are responsible for the jubilation of the juke boxers. They awarded them a technical K.O. in a long legal bout with the Society, which had been given the judges’ nod in the preliminary rounds fought out in the Canadian courts.
As a result of this decision the juke-box owners and the restaurants, cafés and hotels leasing the machines can hear Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, the Dorseys, Artie Shaw, Goodman and the rest of the top swingsters to their own and their shaggyhaired customers’ content and let the nickels and dimes ring merrily, well aware that the stream of silver is going only into their own pockets.
The Canadian Performing Right Society, hereafter to be known as CPRS (as the lawyers like to say), had indicated its desire to collect $10 yearly from each machine installed. An organization representing authors and composers, the CPRS is a reasonable facsimile of ASCAP in the United States and represents that organization in Canada. Their critics, among them the broadcasting stations and gramophone manufacturers who pay tribute, contend that little of the funds collected by the Canadian society (total revenue in 1944 was $240,000) ever gets back to the Canadian
authors and composers of music, the most considerable portion of what’s left—after deducting operating expenses and buying bonds— going to ASCAP and PRS.
In any case, there was a substantial stake in the expensive litigation battled out in the Exchequer and Supreme Courts of Canada before being taken to the Privy Council in
Great Britain. For the “juke box”—known to the trade as “coin phonograph”—is definitely big business. After the yearly “take” rose to $200,000,000 in the United States they stopped counting. In Canada there are a lot of people doing a lot of counting but they are a little hazy about figures. Statistics are not their forte.
Ten Millions a Year
IT IS generally agreed that there are now 10,000 machines installed in Canada, in every city and town, from coast to coast. On the basis of the statements made by the restaurant owners and others themselves who have leased or rented the machines, a low average weekly income would be $20. At that estimate it is now an annual $10 millions business. In the busier places, where the teen-agers hold swing and sway, weekly averages of $40 to $50 a week are not uncommon. A good proportion of the establishments where the juke box is king count on its revenue to pay the rent. And when they tell you about the loot, they take a furtive look over their shoulder at that income tax fellow.
The juke box has virtually sent the radio to limbo in most of the dining and small dancing places. Its detractors also contend that it has destroyed a source of income for many itinerant musicians who carried their trumpets and drums from one small dancing hall to another and who usually turned up at the summer resorts in blue blazers and white flannels. There are a few die-hard restaurant keepers, sturdy individualists with aesthetic sensibilities stemming from the operatic traditions of their forefathers in Italy and Greece, who will have no truck or trade with the juke box and its jungle rhythms.
Others effect a compromise by keeping the box chained up during their busy meal hours, so as not to offend their more substantial customers. Generally, however, the juke box stands in its pristine splendor in a prominent place and no restrictions are placed on the numbers of nickels, dimes and quarters that may be placed therein.
Now, in the United States there are even machines where by inserting a quarter beautiful soul-filling peace can be obtained for 10 minutes of 60 seconds each. And in some Canadian and American cities there are elaborate arrangements made to coax the maximum number of nickels from diners. Booths in the restaurants have push buttons, a slot for the money and a list of the records available. You just insert the coin and wait for the number to be played. The only difficulty there is that so many records may turn up ahead of your own that it’s time to get back to work before your own favorite can be played.
There are big dealers in the machines, notably the Vigneux Brothers of Windsor and Toronto, Donald Duff of Halifax, and the Smith Brothers of Victoria. Vigneux Brothers, the largest operators in Ontario, were the first in the field with the Wurtlitzer and in those good days collected 80%, with 20% going to the places that installed them. Competition changed all that and with several machines in the market, the Seeburg, the Mills, Rockola, and Top-Flight, in addition to the Wurtlitzer (distributed by RCAVictor), the commission basis was brought to its present level, 50-50.
While the importation of the juke box was virtually stopped because of the present restrictive duty and the frowns of the Foreign Exchange Control Board, there were enough machines in the country before the regulations were tightened to keep it big business. There are now 600 in Toronto, 700 in Montreal, 350 in Vancouver, 150 in Halifax, 150 in Quebec City, 250 in Windsor, 250 in London, 300 in Hamilton, 200 in Winnipeg, and 10 to 15 in a great many of the centres of smaller population in the provinces.
Many attempts have been made to trace the origin of the term “juke box” but nothing authoritative has ever been turned up. Many of the people in the trade regarded it as a term of opprobrium and there were several attempts made, with extensive and expensive publicity campaigns, to change the name. But it stuck and is now regarded as a gold-nugget asset and is even incorporated into official documents. The
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dignified law lords had some trouble with it and counsel had to explain at great length that it was American slang but Lord Russell, who writes the judgment of the court, very carefully abstains from using it. The name is now so generally applied that it has turned up in Webster’s Dictionary. Samuel Rogers, K.C., who fought the appeal to the Privy Council successfully, reported that the attempts of the learned justices to trace down the term made an amusing interlude to the involved argument.
Boom in Records
The juke box has proved a boon to the record-selling trade and, with the Petrillo ban on the making of recordings lifted, a tremendous boom in record sales is expected. Records in the machines are changed once a week, usually three or four new ones being added, and it is estimated that the dealers buy over 2,000,000 “waxings” a year in Canada, with the amount increasing steadily. The records do not immediately go out of circulation when withdrawn from the machines. They turn up in piles at the dealers, where
they are advertised as “slightly used” and sell for 20 and 30 cents each.
Bing Crosby, becoming a legendary figure in the entertainment world in his own lifetime, is The King of the Juke Boxes. He’s so far out in front with record sales that the rest hardly are within hailing distance. The dealers, the café people (not to be confused with café society) know his every boop-oopadoop. In Canada Frankie “Swoonatra” is well down the list of best sellers.
The Andrew Sisters whose rendition of a song about rum and a soft drink, banned from the air waves, have made the same song (don’t tell them up at the studios!) the top record in the juke boxes. The three singing ladies are leaders of the second flight in total sales with the leading “name” dance bands in the same category. “Don’t Fence Me In,” as waxed by Bing and the Andrews Sisters; the same combination with “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”; “A Little on the Lonely Side,” with Frankie Carle of the tinkling piano; and “There Goes That Song Again,” by Russ Morgan, are among the most popular items now making the nickels pop from the pockets of the high.school crowd.
The phonographs are manufactured in the United States, and, with practically 100% customs duty now imposed, there are no new ones being brought into the country. New, they cost the dealers $475 to $500. But cabinets are remodelled here by some firms, and, as you might guess from some of the garish color combinations, the operators themselves like to splash on the paint. A good part of the cabinet itself is transparent plastic material which is sprayed with paint and illuminates as the lights flash on inside the machine.
In the early days of the juke box they were usually somewhere in the back. But as their money-making potentialities were realized they were brought out front, given their Joseph’s coat óf many colors, and put in the most prominent place. A really flashy job of remodelling will cost up to $300, and because of the shortage of machines sometimes two or three old ones are dismantled to obtain the parts for one workable and rentable model.
Artistically they may be like something out of a Salvador Dali nightmare but mechanically the juke box does everything but sit up and beg. There are up to 24 “selections,” therecord people say, on each machine. Any music lover can have them played in rotation if the required coins are placed in the machine, whose ancestry dates back to around 1929 when the first coin-operated phonograph was produced by the Capehart Company in the United States—a shy damsel beside the lurid streetwalker of today.
There are no hit-or-miss methods of collection. The dealers, who own the machines, send out two men on collection days. One changes some of the records, the other gets out his key, brings out the coin-filled pail and makes the usual division of the swag with the restaurant owner. The juke box is also equipped with a metre which automatically notes the number of times any record in the machine is played. The hit tunes are left in the machine, the not-so-popular are removed and replaced. Some makes of records can be
played 100 times or more, others are finished after 60 times around and around.
The juke box has meant the difference between success and failure to many a restaurant man. Some who held out against them were finally forced to install them because their bobby soxers went across to the competitor who offered swing with the milk shakes. And it turns up at many strange places, such as weddings. The dealers can even find a record of the wedding march if called upon. In such cases the machines are rented for a day or a night, at fees of from $7 to $10. They are rented out for private parties, meetings of teen-age groups, and are rapidly becoming a familiar feature of daily life.
At one of the better restaurants in Toronto the customers prevailed upon the owner to obtain a supply of their favored music, which ran mostly to musical comedy selections. In most cases, however, the juke box is at the whim of the person with a nickel to start its flashing lights. These people are 99% those who favor the jivesters, and the dealers, who really have no interest in the machines except in the accumulated weekly total of silver, give the public what it apparently wants.
While the juke box does not offer serious competition to the radio programs “piped in” to factories where the British idea of music while you work is being tried, there are a number in factories, the Vigneux firm having sent 150 to various plants.
Some extravagant claims are made for the juke box, one familiar one being that it helps to prevent juvenile delinquency by keeping the youngsters as slap-happy jitterbugs and away from the poolroom. Whatever its virtues or faults it is apparently here to stay and those who like their meals without fanfares will have to find new restaurants.
So far as your operative was able to discover, James C. Petrillo, czar of the U. S. Federation of Musicians, has not yet had a finger in the pie, although he is reported to be mobilizing his forces for a new territorial demand.
The Privy Council judgment on the juke box case, in which the Vigneux Brothers were the chief appellants, is likely to have far-reaching repercussions in the music industry. The action involved Canadian copyright legislation. At present, by virtue of action taken by the Canadian broadcasters, there are certain fixed fees payable by the radio stations, theatres and other public places for the performance of works in which the CPRS holds the copyright. These rates are set by a Copyright Appeal Board created by federal parliamentary enactment in 1938.
Vigneux Brothers and the restaurant involved in the Privy Council appeal contended that a section of the Act provided that a person who gives a performance by means of a radio receiving set or gramophone in any place other than a theatre may do so without paying anything for the right to do so. The CPRS claimed that such a performance was an infringement of their copyright.
Their Lordships were unable to accept the view, as argued in the Canadian courts, that the restaurant and the Vigneux Brothers were “carrying on a distinct class of business, a venture of publicly performing musical works purely for profit.” The restaurant people, they point out, hired a machine which they thought would attract customers to their restaurant. The Vigneux Brothers, they state, supplied the machine in the ordinary
course of business at a fixed rental and “had no interest beyond that.”
The result of the judgment prohibits the CPRS from attempting to collect on either juke boxes or radios used in restaurants and other places. But a CPRS official stated that they did not propose to just sit back and take it, muttering that they had been beaten “on a technicality.” He indicated that they were seeking another way around their difficulty—at the same time disclaiming any particular interest in juke boxes.,
The judgment has again thrown the whole copyright dispute right out into the open. Operators of juke boxes, both here and in the United States, have always taken the position that since the manufacturers of the records already pay copyright fees there should be no further fees. With their position bolstered by the legal decision it is expected there will be more stubborn resistance to future demands made in Canada by CPRS and in the United States by ASCAP. While the British decision is, of course, not a precedent for U. S. lawmakers, it will undoubtedly give some of the operators there ideas.
Don’t look now—but that looks like Mr. Petrillo with his ear to the ground.