CHICAGO - The jukebox at the bar Brian Toro manages isn't gathering dust just yet - but it may only be a matter of time. The popular nightspot is among a growing number of places across the country where people can bring their iPods and other portable music players and, for as long as the bartender allows, share their personal favorites with the crowd.
"Everybody wants to be a DJ," says Toro, a 29-year-old Californian who recently moved to Chicago and now manages Bar Louie in the city's Gold Coast neighborhood. "People enjoy having a little control in their lives."
Even Toro now brings in his music player so he can crank up rock and punk tunes for customers. He'll also let others play just about anything - "even if it's country" - as long as the music is upbeat.
The trend, which is catching on from Washington, D.C., to San Pedro, Calif., is a reflection of just how portable music has become - and how sharing it with others is becoming easier than ever, partly due to new products aimed at amateur DJs.
Numark Industries, for instance, is out with a mixing device that allows users with two iPods to segue one song into the next. It's fairly basic stuff - and not something necessarily aimed at professional DJs.
Some professional DJs say they're waiting for technology that would enable them to perform on a single portable player all the creative mixing and "scratching" they do with vinyl albums.
Already, many do so using software and a laptop, or larger MP3/CD player consoles made by such companies as Denon. But in the era of rapidly shrinking electronics, people want their gear as portable and lightweight as possible.
For amateurs, a basic iPod or other small portable player - and a simple hookup into a bar's sound system - suffices.
That's how it works at the Common Ground Bar and Grill in the Allston section of Boston, where amateurs can sign up to play 15-minute sets during "mp3j night" every Wednesday.
Depending on the crowd, it might be a "chill night," with customers playing mellow jazz or obscure electronica, says Shannon Bullard, a 22-year-old Emerson College student who can often be found at the bar with her iPod.
Other times, someone might be inspired, as her boyfriend was recently, to play a high-powered rock mix with everything from Bon Jovi to Journey.
"I've been here some nights when people dance. It's always something different," says Bullard, who also heard the crowd groan one night when someone played a cheesy remake of a popular tune by The Smiths.
"It's still one of those things where if you play the latest song, you're cool - and in the know," she says.
Experts who track technology trends say they're not surprised people are sharing more music in public.
"It's the same thing as sharing a hot new 45 or tape or CD," says Susan Barnes, associate director of the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York.
She also sees it as more proof that - while some have accused a new wave of music listeners of shutting out the world with their headphones - technology is actually encouraging people to socialize.
"All this stuff is set up for people to meet other people - not isolate," Barnes says.
John von Seggern, a laptop DJ and producer in Los Angeles," also sees DJing as part of an overall movement toward decentralizing control of many forms of media - whether it be through podcasting, blogging or musicians and authors offering their work direct for downloading on the Internet.
And that, he says, creates even more need for self-appointed reviewers and content editors - DJs included.
"It becomes more and more of an art form to select out what is good - because a lot of what's out there is not good," says von Seggern, author of the book "Laptop Music Power: The Comprehensive Guide."
Often, it's not about the technology, professionals say.
"You can have the fanciest gadgets and gizmos, but if you don't get your crowd, there will still be nobody on the dance floor," says Patrick Kowalczyk, a 37-year-old New Yorker who works in public relations and DJs during his off hours.
But, while they're waiting for technology that will make iPods and other small MP3 players even more useful on the club scene, he and many other DJs already see some advantages to carrying one along.
"It's MUCH lighter than hauling around vinyl," says Kendra Borowski, a 26-year-old New Yorker who got an iPod 10 months ago and now uses it at her DJing gigs at bars and nightclubs.
She's also gotten a kick out of impressing friends by using an adapter with a built-in FM transmitter to play tunes from her personal library on cab radios as they ride through the city.
Portable players also provide an easy way for professionals to expand their musical library in a pinch.
Kenny Ulansey, who leads a self-titled ensemble in the Philadelphia area, finds it handy to use a player to supplement the songs his band performs at weddings, as well as bat and bar mitzvahs for Jewish teens.
"We'd go bonkers learning too many awful songs," the 53-year-old sax player says, referring to requests they get from the younger crowd for alternative rock, hip-hop songs "or the latest teeny-bop sensation."
In that regard, he calls his portable music player "a savior."