Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Juke Boxes: A Strange Value Distortion

Juke boxes were very common in the early 1960s. They were in many soda shops, every diner, most bars, and all of the many bowling alleys. They were in all of the White Castles, and the donut places. We played them, too. It was very exciting to find a song that you really liked on a juke box, and it was lots of fun to play songs that you knew would make the straight people crazy (like Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the B-side of “Rainy Day Women”). I don’t remember discussing the value-for-dollar with my friends.

Those juke boxes were ten cents for one play, three songs for a quarter. By now I realize that twenty-five cents was a lot of money at the time. The minimum wage was $1.25, which came to about a dollar after taxes. (That’s $50 per forty-hour week; $40.41 take-home with one dependent.) In other contexts a dollar seems to have gone much further.

For instance, twenty five cents would buy:

1.   Two good comic books (now $6);
2.   Most of a pack of cigarettes (then thirty cents, now between $7 and $12);
3.   Most of a gallon of gas (then ditto the cigarettes; now about $3);
4.   A piece of great pizza with a Coke on the side (now $4 or $5);
5.   1.8 Subway rides (fifteen cents each; now 1.8 rides would be about $5);
6.   One transit of a major bridge (now between $5 and $12).

We pay more or less cheerfully the inflated prices for these other things, but would we pay a similar increase for mere songs on a juke box? Without video, no less?

Maybe it was the coin-operated scene in general. When I was in first grade the candy store across the street from school had a Mighty Mouse viewing machine that cost a dime. The dime let you watch a very short cartoon of the Mouse of Steel kicking some cat’s ass. That’s pretty steep too, when you think about it.

Some research is in order. The previous price had been five cents for one song, and a dime for three songs. Now at that time you could get a good sandwich for fifteen cents, and a meat-loaf dinner for thirty-five cents. Those songs were pretty steep, too.

Maybe we were all just crazy about our tunes!

What are the outstanding value distortions right now? Maybe you could say books from Amazon. They charge you the same price for an actual copy of the book or the transmitted file. There’s real overhead for the book, but very little for the file. Once they have the hardware and the software, sending it to you is free, actually. I still buy e-books from Amazon. Song files on iTunes are another freebie for the vendor. Those I don’t buy.  

I’ve talked about a couple of those weird new value distortions on this blog. Ticket prices at baseball games and concerts have spun all the way out of orbit, losing all touch with reality owing to the extreme increase in the ability of the rich to compete for all of the good seats. Then there’s the exponential increase in the price of a university education, well beyond any budget based requirements, along with the disappearance of the old free university education for the children of working class parents at city or state institutions. Gone like the wind, that last one. For the private universities it’s all due to sheer greed; for the public universities it’s due to the Republican politics of lowering taxes to nothing and then pleading that “there’s no money!” The intent being to reduce all benefits and services associated with the old Social Contract. It’s a crime, or it should be.

Are there still juke-boxes? There are none where I live, anyway. Everyone in Thailand has a smart-phone that’s packed with songs and games. They carry extra battery packs so they never run out of juice. Me, I’m happy to wait until I get home. There’s plenty of good listening up on YouTube, and the price is right. 

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