Avoid Bar Fights And Heed This Friendly Jukebox Etiquette Guide

Guest post by Adam Hardwick

There is a bar near me that specializes in horror. Movies like American Psycho play on TV, and monsters like Dracula hang from posters on the walls. The mixed drinks include Crystal Lake (Friday the 13th reference) and Bleeding Skull. The bar is lit by black lights and neon signs, to complement the horror theme. The jukebox is restricted from playing rap, country, or pop. The regulars like scream-o and industrial, and they will not hesitate to tell you.

I like variety when I go to a bar, especially when it comes to music. I found that playing something unexpected using the jukebox keeps things interesting. On one particular day, I decided that a cover of Hurt, by Johnny Cash, would be worth the bar’s time. I figured that it was written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, so it would go over well. I didn’t listen-check the song at home to make sure it was appropriate for the bar.

I went arrived around 5:00p on a Saturday, and there were five or six people, including the bartender. To my right was a group quietly celebrating a birthday. Hurt was my first play of the night. As soon as the speakers blared Johnny’s gravelly voice and slow, sad, guitar, it vacuumed the energy out of the room. Johnny’s cover is a lot more depressing than the original. Trent was around 30 when he wrote the song, and Johnny was around 60 when he covered it. He sounded like a lonely, miserable man at the end of his life, regretting his past, and offering a mournful farewell to listeners.

Within seconds, one of the locals in the birthday group shouted a challenge, “THIS SONG SUCKS!” Four minutes later – of depressing music, and awkward silence among the patrons – the song came to a close. I was wearing a Johnny Cash shirt, so there was no mistake that I was the one who picked the song.

I wanted to crawl under my barstool and hide. One of the offended person’s friends made a case for the song, in a quiet argument between the two. He probably felt some discomfort due to his friend’s behavior. Fortunately, I was able to make friends with the group later that night, through a mutual appreciation for The Cure. I also learned a valuable lesson: there are some Do’s and Don’t’s when using a jukebox.

We all tell ourselves things – “what if they hate it? I’ll be so embarrassed”, or, “will I get hit with a pool stick if I play this? I don’t want to offend anyone” – when picking a song. Fear tempts us to not enjoy ourselves. As with all matters dealing with people, there is a certain etiquette when playing music for a crowd. Here are some tips that may help you, should you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, with a desire to play music.

  1. It’s about everyone else. While it’s important to play music we like, it’s more important to remember that we are playing music for others, too, and need to take them into consideration. Our favorite 12-minute rendition of Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd) may be awesome on our home stereo, but we are not at home. Pick songs that everyone can enjoy.
  2. Read the crowd. The clientele will dictate what kind of music is appropriate in a certain setting. Are the people around us in their twenties, or fifties? How are they dressed? What are they talking about? We cannot predict exactly what others will like, but we can get an idea based on superficial appearances. Pick music that matches these appearances. Someone who wears carpenter jeans, a Carhartt jacket, and beard stubble; and talks about the Mets game, will probably like different music than someone who wears a Fedora, skinny jeans, and plaid; and talks about academia.
  3. Keep things interesting. We may prefer Grunge, or Trap, or Hair Metal, but variety can go a long a way in entertaining a crowd. People get tired of the same stuff quickly. Try to pick music from different eras and genres (within reason). We may find ourselves confined to certain genres based on the bar culture, but we can still pick different artists and styles within those genres. For this reason, never use the “Play Entire Album” feature on the jukebox app.
  4. Don’t hog the music. Unless no one else is playing anything, throw in music at a rate of one to three, or one to four (play a song after three others are in the queue). Limit the playlist to five songs. This gives respect to others who have an equal claim to the jukebox, and keeps us from spending all our money trying to control the music.
  5. Avoid anything longer than six minutes. Like Point Number 4, give others a turn. If someone doesn’t like the song, the length will tax that person’s ears.
  6. Avoid the overplayed. “Classics” tend to not be classic when they have been played a billion times, in a billion bars, on a billion radio stations. The song may be great, but if it no longer elicits an emotional response, skip it.

We will know if our selections are going well based on others’ reactions. If others fill the jukebox queue after our song is finished, or nearby patrons are grumbling about the music, it may be a clue that there are better choices.

There are always exceptions to the above guidelines. Everyone has heard Freefallin’ (Tom Petty) a million times, but it will still rule any fringe-rural bar. It is also possible to make the night a lot better by picking something that doesn’t fit in. It takes time to get a sense for what people want to hear.

I think it is the other-centeredness that brings the most joy. It is very satisfying to see others singing with music, tapping their fingers, or humming to a song we picked, because we made the experience better for ourselves and our co-patrons.

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