The digital jukebox is a modern-bar mainstay, a strangely sterile presence in a sticky, moldy, and otherwise downtrodden place. It’s a weird little robot, benevolently aglow even when it’s without company, pushing its own buttons and eagerly awaiting the swipe of a drunk kid’s credit card before it dispenses the same two songs from Exile on Main Street in a whiskey-lubricated moment or delivers the latest Rihanna track. It overwhelms with its many choices, thousands upon thousands of singles available just beyond the sensitive surface of its touch screen. It’s a familiar and predictable presence, and the rate at which it has replaced the wax and ebony organs of its candy-hued, rusting ancestors is unfortunate.
Mike Stuto’s digital jukebox isn’t like that. It hasn’t been since 2002, when the indie-rock club booker quit the business and closed Brownies, his 200-capacity venue on Avenue A, which gave Bright Eyes, Spoon, The Strokes, Death Cab For Cutie, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, The National, and a three-volume list of other genre-defining indie musicians a stage in their early days. Brownies is where the New Pornographers played their first New York gig; Ryan Adams worked out the verses and progressions of Rock N Roll in the modest basement studio beneath Brownies’ floorboards before he laid its tracks down elsewhere. The space has reopened as Hi-Fi, the physical embodiment of Stuto’s relationship with rock ‘n’ roll. When The Hold Steady needed a place to watch their late-night musical guest debut on The Late Show with David Letterman, they invited a ton of friends to Hi-Fi to watch the prerecorded performance. Galen Polivka, The Hold Steady’s bassist, still tends bar at Hi-Fi when he isn’t on the road.
Stuto basically condensed his carefully curated record collection and the list of favorite bands he had amassed through booking Brownies and uploaded it to a rudimentary PC, and all of the aforementioned bands can be found on Hi-Fi’s jukebox, which sits immediately to the right of the door when you walk in. Unlike the new, Internet-assisted jukes, his doesn’t have everything, and he’s proud of that. Top 40 doesn’t really have a place here. Hell, the Hi-Fi jukebox can’t even pick up WiFi.
“I developed software and turned a regular home PC into a jukebox at a time when iTunes was still Mac only,” Stuto says.
It’s Saturday night before the bar fills up and the DJ arrives, and Stuto is taking a minute in the newly renovated back room, where he recently started booking acoustic sessions again. “I loaded about 1,800 albums’ worth of music on it, and it now has over 4,000 records, full albums. At the time, it was definitely unique and forward-thinking, the whole idea of having a jukebox with no Top 40 on it, and tons of indie records, with 20 classic Dylan records and 30 from the Stones. It was pretty exciting. In 2014? Not so much. A well-curated record collection doesn’t really seem to have the allure it did after Spotify and all the other abilities to find stuff to listen to came up. But even from the beginning, the bar was supposed to be a music-centric, music-snob kind of a place.”
Hi-Fi expanded beyond the rudimentary “stage, soundboard, and a couple of benches” setup of Brownies, though the establishment’s past life haunts the place: Patrons from another life squint while trying to figure out what happened to its previously ramshackle decor, and they try to pinpoint when the bar became plastered with record covers.
“Brownies has been closed for 11 years, and so people who didn’t really go to it very much but kind of know a bit of the legend or heard the stories about it [and] went to one show — those people [still] working in the business with any kind of influence, they’re the people who champion the bar,” Stuto says. “We’ve actually kind of had a bit of a resurgence just because it’s, like, ‘That guy’s still there!’ “
A look at the walls, staff, and clientele confirms this, especially on weeknights, when the late-night shows that were taped earlier that afternoon are finally broadcast, and the musical guests can down a pint while watching themselves on a TV outside of their hotel room or the apartment they’re crashing in while they’re in town.
Polivka is frequently working during these impromptu celebrations. “I’m glad it’s become a thing for bands to do there,” he says of the whole late-night viewing-party thing. “I’ve worked a bunch of them and met some very cool people. It’s surreal to see yourself on national television, especially surrounded by friends who can be very genuinely and touchingly excited for you.”
Hi-Fi has become a hamlet for labels, bands, publicists, and music fans who want to acknowledge the gravitas in the comfort of a home-away-from-home with the built-in audience to match. It’s especially rad that the guy behind the bar knows exactly how they feel and can pour accordingly.
“I didn’t go around to a bunch of bars that were successful, figure out what they were doing and copy it,” Stuto says of the Brownies/Hi-Fi transformation. “If I had an 1,800-square-foot living room, and I was able to have a lot of people hanging out in it, what would I do?”
The vinyl sleeves (which are empty) are culled from what’s left of Stuto’s collection — he sold most of it, and prefers to keep his music on an iPod — with sentimental picks mounted next to revered hits. “I thought it would just be cool to decorate my bar with pieces of my life,” he says, making a beeline for the front wall, which is explicitly reserved for Dylan and Rolling Stones titles. “There’s a Rush record I bought when I was 11. There was the first Kiss record my brother and I ever bought through the Columbia Record Club. My father got 12 for a penny and he let us pick one.”
It all comes together — the jukebox and its soundtrack, the records on the wall, the mix of old friends — and Hi-Fi’s been a bit of a muse for Stuto, in that it has revived a love of music for him that had flagged under the stress and responsibilities that came with booking a venue like Brownies.
“When I had a bar, it took me a while to realize that I could just be a fan again,” he says. “I got to the point [with Brownies] where I didn’t like music anymore, or I didn’t know how to like music anymore. If it’s something you love and you have to monetize it, it does fuck with it. Anything like that, you go through periods, especially if you see music as an emotional thing or connect to it on an emotional level. I definitely rediscovered my love for music and kind of became a college kid again with how I listened. I didn’t listen with an agenda anymore. I listened because I just liked music. I went through a period a year after Hi-Fi opened, where I was just in love with rock again. It wasn’t about telling bands you thought they were great because they brought a crowd and you wanted them to come back. There was definitely a difference in being a venue operator and [running] a bar. When I told people I was closing down Brownies and opening a bar, a lot of people were, like, ‘You’re not really a nice guy. You realize that people who run taverns like people.’ I was, like, yeah, that’s an interesting thought. But that changed my outward personality pretty quickly. I was happier.”
And the killer jukebox doesn’t hurt, either.