Arcade Game Vendor Works To Keep Up With The Times

By Jason Kreke | Thursday, January 12, 2012

Western Automatic Music's façade was erected when the company bought the building in the early 1940's. Credit: Jason Kreske

When he’s not putting in 14-hour days servicing customers from Elgin to Romeoville or trying to stay ahead of the latest gaming technology, Jim Thom at Western Automatic Music is battling a stereotype that has haunted the coin-operated entertainment business since it was started.

“Everyone thinks we’re controlled by the mob,” Thom said. “But, that’s not true. Because the coin-operated entertainment business was traditionally a cash business, it was particularly attractive to the mob.” However, as Thom points out, times have changed. “Lottery replaced the numbers game, and we hope that legalizing gambling can legitimize the industry. Our biggest future plans are in video gambling.”

As Vice President of Western Automatic Music, 4206 N. Western Ave., a company his grandparents founded nearly 80 years ago, Thom is on the frontline of a host of front-page issues from the economic recession to mobile technologies to Illinois gambling legislation. Over a plate of jambalaya and a few pints of beer at Daily Bar & Grill, Thom talks about the changes he’s seen in coin-operated entertainment, what’s currently challenging the industry now and where he sees it going in the future.

Situated on a stretch of Western Avenue just north of Berteau, Western Automatic Music is a supplier of entertainment machines, such as jukeboxes, video gaming and pool tables. Thom’s grandparents started Western Automatic Music in the 1930s selling coin-operated bowling games, the kind where a player plunks in a quarter and rolls a ball at a set of pins. They split their time by running a fishing camp in Canada during the summers. As the jukebox became more popular in the 1940s, his grandparents sold the fishing camp and focused on coin-operated entertainment full time. Western Automatic Music continued to expand when pinball was made legal in Chicago in the 1970s, video game consoles such as Pac-Man in the 1980s, and touch-screen and wireless technologies today.

“We’ve gone from 78s to 45s to CDs to downloads,” Thom said. “In the past, new technologies were rolled out every 8 to 10 years. Now there being introduced every couple of years. It’s our job to bring the latest equipment.” Part of this new equipment includes integrating with mobile technology.

Demonstrating a new mobile technology his company is offering to customers, Thom says it allows a user to create a playlist at home and upload it to a smart phone. If the person goes to a bar with a compliant jukebox, that playlist then can be uploaded to the jukebox and played at the bar. The industry is trying to adapt to explosion of entertainment options.

“There are a lot of entertainment options for people,” Thom said. “Back in the day, Space Invaders or Pac-Man were only available outside of the home. What we paid $2,000 for, someone can pick up now and play at home for $300.” In an era when someone can buy a phone app for $3 and play an unlimited amount, Thom and Western Automatic Music are looking to work with bar owners to provide a more holistic entertainment experience.

“We need to give people something back,” Thom said. “People are not spending as much as they used to.” Being directly related to disposable income places greater restraint on customers and Western Automatic Music. With bar owners looking to maximize their space, Thom is left pushing the latest technologies such as bar-top video gaming that have a smaller presence in the bar.

“Bar owners want [jukeboxes and video games] as part of a larger entertainment package,” he said. Thom recently worked to create Promo Nation, an consortium that offers rewards to people who play the bar-top video games. It tracks performance and offer points that can be redeemed for prizes, such as an iPod. “It is one element to create an atmosphere that you can’t get at home.”

There is one entertainment option that people won’t be able to get at home: legalized video gambling.

As Western Automatic Music’s business model has shifted from 25-cent-a-play jukeboxes to video and mobile technologies, it is poised to implement coin-operated gambling at bars in Chicago and the suburbs. Even though these terminals will use dollars and plastic instead of silver, the basic concept of gaming is the same.

“By allowing video gambling at bars, it legitimizes it,” Thom said. “The state is trying to get rid of the illegality, getting tax dollars but protecting the people that are playing.”

With illicit gambling already occurring, Thom sees the government-approved legislation as legitimizing the industry and removing the suspected criminal element. To be clear, video gambling in Illinois is separate from the casino expansion. Large slot machines or craps tables won’t be replacing pool tables, something Thom is quick to point out. This, he said, will move the already existing illegal video gambling machines out from the backroom of bars, liquors stores and private clubs and into an open regulatory environment.

Western Automatic Music has applied for one of the 100 or so terminal operator licensees in Illinois and expects to see video gaming come to the state in the second half of 2012. For Thom, overcoming the suspicions of mob-controlled gambling is key.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Thom said. “Coin-operated gambling will be a lifeline; it will be good for the bars, good for the State of Illinois, and good for Western Automatic Music.”

For now, Thom and Western Automatic Music will focus on selling pool tables and jukeboxes, which are its biggest sellers, bar-top video games, and even the few remaining cigarette vending machines. With most of business coming from word of mouth and going seven days a week, Thom is focused on providing full service and introducing new products.

“We hope to be providing for customers,” Thom said. “We want to organically grow.”

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