Feature - Back Numbers

Mic Check - Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Karaoke (and were afraid to ask...) (2005.07.02)

Only a handful of Japanese words have made their way into the English language, among them sushi, sake, geisha, samurai, karate, and karaoke. All originated in Japan, and one of the most recent, karaoke, is likely the most popular.

Pronounced "kah rah okay" (although some outside of Japan insist on mis-pronouncing it "carry okie"), the word is a combination of the Japanese words "kara" (empty) and "okesutora" (the Japanese adaptation of the word orchestra).Karaoke was invented in 1971 in Kobe by a keyboard player named Daisuke Inoue. At the time, Inoue was playing at a club called Baron in a band that would accompany patrons who wanted to sing; a fairly common practice at the time.

Inoue got the idea for karaoke after a customer asked him to join him on a company trip where the singing enthusiast planned to perform. Not able to leave his regular job, Inoue created a tape for the businessman to sing to. This working reasonably well, he conceived a contraption which rigged together an eight track car stereo, a microphone, an amplifier and a coin box with help from friends who worked in electronics, wood work and furniture finishing.

Inoue started a company called Crescent, and began producing his first commercial version, the "8 Juke", with a first production run of just 11 machines. Inoue leased the machines rather than selling them, which could have been a lucrative business model. However, he never patented his invention, and soon there were swarms of imitators. While Inoue stayed in the business for 12 years, and sold over 10,000 machines, he was eventually overtaken by competitors like Daiichi Kosho, which is presently the most successful karaoke machine company in Japan.

Today Japan has an estimated 470,000 karaoke machines installed in public places such as clubs, lounges, bars, restaurants, hotels, buses and even taxis. There are also home versions which are sold all over the world, and in Asia it is not uncommon for households to have more than one.

Originally most karaoke was performed in front of all of the patrons of a club, pub or "snack", in which case it was usually referred to as a "karaoke bar". Today, however, karaoke is more often performed in a private room, called a "karaoke box", rented by groups ranging from 2 to about 20. Karaoke boxes usually also serve drinks, and given the privacy afforded by these rooms, sometimes more than singing is going on. In general, however, the appearance of karaoke boxes shifted some of the emphasis away from drinking, and helped develop karaoke by bringing in more teenagers and families.

The karaoke box is usually credited by historians as being invented in the countryside of Okayama, where an entrepreneur created a roadside facility by converting a freight car to a place where people could sing. Others claim that the concept originated in Korea, from what are called "noraebang" (song rooms). In Chinese speaking countries karaoke boxes have historically been called KTV.

Karaoke machines have developed significantly in the time since they were first introduced, and perhaps due to such rapid innovation, Inoue himself had been largely forgotten as the originator until a Singaporean TV show tracked him down in 1996. Early additions to the original were echo and reverb, which tended to make a singer's voice sound a bit better. Laserdisc karaoke was a major innovation, which made it possible for singers to follow the words on a video monitor. Other popular additions were pitch control, which allowed singers to adjust the accompaniment to their range, and a grading system, which scored the singer on how well they stayed to the melody. Some stereo systems have a karaoke function mode, which removes the middle range where vocals appear by subtracting the left channel from the right channel, a crude effect which generally only partially works. In 1992 a system was introduced that allowed songs to be accessed by a dial-up network. More recently there are companies making karaoke available by cell phone, such as Xing's "Docokara". Today karaoke is a huge business - over seven billion dollars in Japan alone.

Karaoke has also had a major impact on the music business. Singles have for years been released with a "karaoke version" so that fans could sing-along to the backing tracks of their favorite songs. Music publishers make a substantial income from karaoke, as establishments featuring karaoke pay fees to the collection society JASRAC. Some popular songs are quickly forgotten, while others remain popular via karaoke for many years; enka in particular has produced a number of karaoke evergreens.

Testuya Komuro, who has been one of Japan's most successful producers, has been quoted as saying that he aims to make songs that are easy to dance to and easy to sing karaoke to. The perception of what would make a popular song became not just what was good to listen to, but also what would make a good karaoke number.

Foreign language songs have also become more popular with karaoke fans. Years ago, only a dozen or so English songs could be found at a Japanese bar. Some of the English language standards were "My Way", "Yesterday", "Take Me Home Country Roads", "Green, Green Grass of Home", and "Tennessee Waltz", which some claim are songs which resemble Japanese enka thematically. Today it is not unusual for a Japanese karaoke box to offer thousands of foreign songs available, including songs in English, Korean, Chinese, French and other languages.

While karaoke is especially popular in Asia, it is now well established in most corners of the world. The Singing Machine, a company founded in 1982 which claims to be the first to provide karaoke systems for home entertainment in the United States, is listed on the American stock exchange. Many countries have karaoke organizations, websites and events.

While karaoke is a relatively new phenomenon, Japanese have a history of singing together at social gatherings, with the group clapping along in accompaniment. While unskilled singing is usually politely overlooked, accomplished singers have traditionally been admired. This extends to karaoke as well, and many Japanese go as far as taking lessons and/or practicing for many hours to hone their performance skills. A person's best song is referred to as his "ohako" or "juuhachi-ban" - literally his "18th", a term derived from kabuki.

Some foreigners are surprised when Japanese, who have a reputation for being shy, are so poised when singing. Americans on the other hand, who have a reputation for being loud and rambunctious, often become very quiet and start looking for something to crawl under when handed a karaoke microphone. Most, however, usually seem to be able to overcome their initial stage fright with a few drinks.

Interestingly, those who most vehemently refuse on first offer of the mike are often the ones from whom the mic must later be pried.

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Originally submitted by: Keith Cahoon | See Edit History | Edit Article