Rowe Million And Counting

July 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” may be history’s most popular jukebox song, and Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” the most popular in 2006, but it was the Foreigner classic “Jukebox Hero” that earned itself a special place in jukebox history last week: the first song to blast out of the one millionth jukebox manufactured by Grand Rapids’ Rowe International.

That unit — a NiteStar Digital Internet Access Jukebox earmarked for display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland — represents a significant milestone for the music industry and West Michigan manufacturing.

Although no longer locally owned, Rowe International is one of Grand Rapids’ oldest manufacturers. Originally known as the National Piano Manufacturing Co., it moved into its current facility at

1500 Union Ave. SE
in 1922, a site previously used by a maker of horse-drawn hearses and less than a block from Kindel Furniture Co.’s flagship Grand Rapids plant.

At the time, the firm didn’t make jukeboxes, per se, but coin-operated electronic player pianos operated by its sister entity, the National Automatic Music Co.

“It was a jukebox in the broadest definition,” said John Margold, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing and highest-ranking local executive. “These were the kind you’d see in speakeasies and other sundry locations of a less desirable nature.”

Today, Rowe is the world’s oldest and largest maker of coin-operated jukeboxes. It merged its two divisions in 1925 to create AMI, the Automatic Musical Instrument Co., and later merged with the California-based maker of the William Rowe cigarette machine to create Rowe/AMI. In some circles, the company is still known by that moniker today.

While neither the most recognizable nor highest selling brand through the industry’s post World War II boom — when 24,500 units a year were shipping out of Grand Rapids — Rowe is the only company still viable today, with a 70 percent U.S. and 60 percent worldwide market share.

With the exception of a 20-employee circuit board plant in Texas, all manufacturing is still done at the now 460,000-square-foot, 156-employee Grand Rapids facility. The company sold off its vending machine division as part of a restructuring four years ago, but retained its bill-changing line, which today accounts for 20 percent of sales. The company is now wholly owned by the Harbour Group, a St. Louis private equity firm.

Proudly, Margold confesses that the company’s market has largely returned to the demographic it originally served.

“At the higher-end, higher-scale locations, you see a lot of varied entertainment: bands, disc jockeys,” he explained. “What I picture as the juke joint has peanut shells on the floor, maybe a couple of fist-fights a week.

“Those are our babies. Low-priced, blue-collar entertainment, where somebody can go in after a day of work, play a game of pool, have a couple of draft beers, and listen to some of those favorite songs before he goes home.”

Jukebox models vary from the relatively subdued to the delightfully tacky, depending on how anxious a locale is for its customers to notice the machine.

“If it’s a little bar, they want it to be the first thing you see when you walk in the door, all bright red and orange lights that catches your eye from a mile away,” explained Ed Gundrum, senior vice president of operations. “Other places want something a little more subtle. What they all want is a lot of selections of music.”

Innovation and technology adoption has played a large part in the company’s continued sustainability. AMI was the first company to market the traditional “automatic phonograph” jukebox and created the first jukebox to play both sides of a record. It was during the advent of the CD that the company became the industry’s dominant player.

In this decade, the jukebox rapidly adopted a digital music platform, with Rowe quick to respond. It was the first to launch an Internet-access jukebox line and is the only company to manage its digital music content.

The Internet jukeboxes ship with 300 albums of digital music stored on the machine’s hard drive — roughly 3,600 songs. If a patron wants to hear a different song, he or she can access the online search feature of Rowe subsidiary AMI Entertainment, and for a 50-cent surcharge can download one of over 250,000 songs.

As Margold noted, this allows patrons to broaden what they are listening to. He cited the song “Respect” — found on most jukeboxes sung by Aretha Franklin but seldom by Otis Redding. The latter can be found via an online search, as well as an arguably superior version of Cline’s “Crazy” by writer Willie Nelson.

AMI Entertainment manages its own data center and software, as well as music librarians and agency operatives in Nashville, Memphis, Los Angeles and New York

“We’ve been for many, many years a traditional manufacturing facility, a smokestack company,” said Margold. “Now, all of a sudden, we’ve got folks dealing with ones and zeroes and folks that can negotiate with Sony and Warner and BMG.”

Because of its unique position as both manufacturer and content provider, Rowe is the only company in the industry able to manage all of its customer support.

CD jukeboxes still make up a heavy portion of the company’s jukebox sales, especially to the foreign market.    

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