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One Million Jukeboxes
AMI/Rowe: 1909 to 2006

Deeply rooted in American culture, the jukebox has played a central role in the music industry for almost a century, helping to promote and establish numerous artists across the nation.

Rowe International, the oldest and largest manufacturer of coin-operated jukeboxes, has contributed greatly to jukebox fortunes throughout 20th the century. Its jukebox business dates back to 1909 when the National Automatic Music Co., with only $200 in working capital, began leasing and building automatic electrical player pianos. The company’s manufacturing division, National Piano Manufacturing Co., operated as a separate entity.

Jukebox Evolution

Early 20th century player pianos, which played music without the need for a human pianist, were controlled by mechanical or pneumatic means; today they are electronic. They were popular in the early 1900s, around the same time the acoustic gramophone became fashionable.

For its player piano, National Automatic Music held two patents for a “selecting device” that allowed the patron to select any desired music roll in the magazine to play. It had only eight selections from which to choose - nothing like the quarter-million-plus array available on today’s digital jukeboxes, which offer on-demand access to an unlimited amount of songs stored in a remote music library.

From the start, National Automatic Music was based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the boyhood home of President Gerald R. Ford Jr. In 1922, the player piano maker moved into a facility located at 1500 Union Avenue, a site previously occupied by a manufacturer of horse-drawn hearses, where it has been building jukeboxes ever since.

In 1925, National Automatic Music, which operated some 4,200 player pianos, and National Piano Manufacturer merged their business activities to form the Automatic Musical Instrument Co., and the newly created AMI would become an enduring symbol of jukebox Americana.

AMI acquired a record-changing mechanism from inventor B.C. Kenyon. The apparatus allowed the factory to make use of the then-modern 78-RPM low-fi disc, the first electrically recorded music technology, and enter the budding jukebox market, which would soon make player pianos obsolete.

An Unlikely Couple: Vending Machines and Jukeboxes

At the same time, an American inventor named William Rowe devised a cigarette vending machine that began a trend toward selling higher-priced merchandise in the emerging automatic merchandising sector. Before the Rowe cigarette machine, merchandise venders were primarily limited to dispensing penny gum and candy.

Four decades later, the vending machine business he founded would unite with AMI during a period of large-scale mergers and acquisitions that was a part of the postwar full-line vending revolution.

The Automatic Canteen Co., a nationwide vending operation undergoing rapid expansion, acquired Rowe Manufacturing Co. Inc. in the mid-1950s and soon after bought AMI in 1959, merging the two units into a manufacturing subsidiary called Rowe AC Services. Canteen, which redirected its focus on foodservice, eventually divested the manufacturing division and Rowe continued to build jukeboxes under the Rowe/AMI name, along with full-line vending machines.

The Jukebox Revolution: Postwar Era Fuels Demand for Entertainment

The jukebox industry of which Rowe is a significant part got underway in earnest during the post-Depression era. Juke joints - the colloquial term for an informal establishment featuring blues music, dancing and alcoholic drinks - sprang up everywhere. High production volume at the Grand Rapids jukebox plant continued until the Second World War.

Not unlike many other American industrial factories, AMI suspended production to retool for the war effort from 1940 until 1945. The company resumed jukebox production in 1946 and its Model A, affectionately known as the “Mother of Plastic” because of its opalescent plastics and colored glass gemstones, was the first box to roll off the postwar production line.

The postwar years saw a nation hungry for entertainment, and the AMI factory ran at full capacity producing 100 machines per day for 245 working days annually to feed that appetite. This boom lasted several years, during which time the jukebox industry benefited from - and contributed to - a surge of new audio technology.

The modern jukebox emerged in the late 1940s and enjoyed explosive growth in the following decade as the hi-fi vinyl micro-groove 45-RPM record, replacing 78-RPM technology, became the dominant recorded music format.

The popular culture period defined by malt shops and bobby soxers fueled the demand for inexpensive entertainment. Before artists had the opportunity to promote their new recordings to the public on the radio, the jukebox was the best way for the music industry to reach out to record-buying patrons. Any establishment with a jukebox was the best place for music lovers to hear their favorite artists’ new recordings. And while jukeboxes gave the public a method to hear the hot new songs, the designs developed by the engineers of Rowe also created a stylish look for the jukebox.

Today’s Jukebox

During the CD era of the late 1980s and ‘90s, Rowe grew to be the dominant jukebox manufacturer, commanding an estimated 65% to 70% of the domestic jukebox market share and 55% to 60% worldwide.

In 2003, Rowe sold its vending business to apply all its engineering and marketing resources to the pursuit of new opportunities in the digital jukebox market. As part of that initiative, Rowe launched its AMI Entertainment Inc. subsidiary, which provides and manages digital music content, software and networking technology for today’s Internet-access jukeboxes. Rowe also continues to design, market and build money-changing machines for the carwash, laundry and vending industries.

Since the early 1900s, Rowe has skillfully adapted to changing technologies and has lead those changes in the jukebox industry. In 2004 Rowe became the first company to offer a digital jukebox service that features licensed music from all major record labels - EMI Music, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group - giving jukebox patrons the largest and broadest selection of major label music with its AMI Entertainment Network.

Rowe recently introduced technology to allow CD-to-digital conversions for Rowe jukeboxes and cashless payment capabilities that enable patrons to purchase jukebox credits with Visa or Mastercard.

A far cry from the company’s first player piano, today’s Internet-access Rowe jukeboxes are equipped with the capacity to download hundreds of thousands of songs. With the never-ending improvement of music technology, Rowe will continue to anticipate changes in musical entertainment to serve its patrons from the Bebop era, to the Hiphop era, and beyond.

A Photo History of AMI/Rowe Jukeboxes

To see a photo history of AMI/Rowe jukeboxes, go to Photo History Web Page (pdf)


Copyright 2006 Rowe International, Reprinted with permission





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Ken Durham
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