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Almost All Ice Cream Truck Music Is Controlled By One Company

Photo: Phillip Pessar via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Phillip Pessar via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve ever heard an ice cream truck playing a little jingle as it drove down your street on a hot summer day, you’ve been touched by the marketing genius of Bob Nichols. You’ve never heard of him, but he’s the guy responsible for all of the music that gets played out of nearly every ice cream truck across the country.

Back in 1973, Nichols – an electrical engineer – was watching a movie when he heard Scott Joplin’s iconic 1902 ragtime song, “The Entertainer” and it gave him an idea. It would be the perfect song to get people’s attention when an ice cream truck drove by, according to the Hustle. And from there, an institution was born.

You see, Nichols was in the perfect position to make his dream a reality. He was the founder of Nichols Electronics, a small Minnesota-based company, that supplied the music boxes to a vast majority of the ice cream trucks in the U.S. They already came preloaded with dozens of jingles, so soon after his idea, Nichols added “The Entertainer” to their catalogs. Fairly soon after, it became a song synonymous with ice cream trucks.

Screenshot: <a class="link " href="https://www.nicholselectronics.com/overview" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Nichols Electronics;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas">Nichols Electronics</a>

Here’s a little more about Nichols Electronics’ position in the market, according to Bob’s son Mark and his wife Beth, who run the company today. From theHustle:

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Today, Nichols Electronics no longer controls just the vast majority of the music box market; it is the market.

Mark estimates that the company, which he inherited, is responsible for up to 97% of the music boxes in circulation.

This is a little bit of backstory on why ice cream trucks and other vendors actually use music to entice customers, and how Nichols got mixed up in all of it:

At the end of the 1800s, ice cream pushcart owners sang little verses “in praise of their lemon ice cream and vanilla too” to attract customers, according to the paper “Ding Ding!: The Commodity Aesthetic of Ice Cream Music,” by the ethnomusicologist Daniel T. Neely.

In 1920, an Ohio parlor owner named Harry Burt invented the Good Humor bar — the first ice cream treat on a stick — and recruited a team of employees to drive around neighborhoods, selling them out of trucks.

To catch the public’s attention, Burt equipped each truck with a set of bobsled bells that jingled when the vehicle drove by. But ringing a bell all day long soon proved to be too manually taxing for drivers.

Around 1929, some Good Humor drivers started replacing their bells with ad hoc mechanical music boxes.

That shift caught the attention of John Ralston, an ice cream truck driver in Los Angeles. By the end of the 1940s, Ralston had rigged up his own music box — a complex contraption involving a bunch of microphones hooked up to a vacuum-tube radio — and started pitching it to manufacturers.

This is when our hero, Bob, comes back into play. Ralston felt manufacturers were too slow to pick up on this great idea, so he turned to his buddy Bobby. He had founded Nichols Electronics in 1957 but didn’t have any experience with music boxes. He was focused on TV and radio parts and manufacturing one-off products like a coin-operated foot massager.

However, when Ralston asked him if he could throw together an electronic music box, Nichols decided to try it out. The two soon worked out a deal. Ralston was well connected to the ice cream vending scene (what a cool scene to be in). He would promote the new music boxes for Bob in exchange for a small cut of the profits. Soon after, orders started pouring in from across the country. There was apparently never any sort of print advertising – it was all word of mouth. That’s how good these music boxes were.

In the end, it turned out that ice cream trucks equipped with music boxes sold almost twice as much ice cream as trucks with just bells. That’s impressive work.

Around 1960, Nichols Electronics upgraded from a disc-based box to a wind-up cylindrical one — a move that sliced down the price of a music box from $125 to $80.

At that point, says Mark, “my father had most of the market.”

When he took over the business shortly before his father died in 2003, the company was selling 2k music boxes a year.

But today, the number of ice cream trucks on the road has shrunk — and so has the demand for music boxes. These days, the company only produces 300-400 boxes per year.

Years ago, the company had several full-time employees, but at this point it’s just Mark and Beth. That’s sort of sweet in its own way.

That’s enough from me. You should all really head over to the Hustle to hear more about some of the issues Bob and Nichols Electronics faced, the existential threats the company faces from much larger companies and what goes into picking the perfect ice cream truck song.

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