The History of Karaoke In America


Today, we forgo the mike drop in favor of the knowledge drop. Long, but worth knowing.

Karaoke has its roots in the Japanese custom of providing musical entertainment for guests during dinners or parties. Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese musician, is credited as the titular creator of the first karaoke machine in 1971, in response to requests for private recordings of his performances from guests at the Utagoe coffeehouses where he performed. These coffeehouses were venues where like-minded patrons would sing songs together, usually politically-themed, and were very popular for two decades stretching from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies. With recordings of his works, the Utagoe patrons could sing along with music even when Inoue was absent.

This was not too different from a product used by performers elsewhere in the world. Where touring with a full band was impractical or too expensive for performing vocal groups to afford, it was often simpler and easier for them, their label or their promoter to commission a recording of their own records, minus the vocal tracks, and to serially provide that recording to each venue for playback during their performances. As these “minus-one” tracks were highly specific and of general use (it was thought at the time) to only the original artists, the tracks were not mass-produced.

Inoue’s device incorporated a tape machine and a coin collection system, and he leased them to restaurants and hotels, providing the music recordings himself. Inoue however, failed to patent his invention, and it is Roberto del Rosario, who independently developed his own karaoke music system in the Philippines in 1972, who holds the patents to the karaoke machine (Utility Model 5269 dated June 2, 1983; Utility Model 6237 dated November 14, 1986).

The Asian cultural influences encouraging singing along with popular songs, in social situations or in private, coupled with the technological innovations by Inoue and del Rosario, led to a rapid expansion of the phenomenon, now being called “karaoke”, a portmanteau of two Japanese words meaning “empty” and “orchestra”. Initially karaoke was seen as somewhat of a fad, and a rather expensive one. Inoue’s machine charged a 100-yen coin for each song played back – at the time, the equivalent cost of two lunches.

But perhaps what naysayers failed to comprehend at the time was the human need to participate in their favorite songs. Far from an Asian-only predilection, it’s an impulse played out hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of times daily – singing along to a song behind the wheel of a car, in the shower, gripping a hairbrush in front of a mirror – these clichés are modern real-world expressions of a basic human impulse to sing, that may stretch back to a distant age when we all sang our collective history, sitting around a fire, deep in a cave.

There were historical indicators that karaoke could become a widespread phenomenon. Player pianos were immensely popular in American homes (and a dominant force in both the piano and music publishing industries) treasured for their ability to “bring the family together” for sing-alongs, until they were wiped out by a combination of advances in radio, phonograph, and the Great Depression. The NBC network aired a karaoke-like show running from 1961-1966 called Sing Along With Mitch, hosted by Mitch Miller, which superimposed lyrics (“Follow the bouncing ball!”) to the songs they performed on television screens and encouraged home audience sing-along participation.

As karaoke spread to become a global industry, it reflected the technology of the day. First relying on cassettes and 8-track tape players and accompanied by lyric sheets printed on paper, the standard “karaoke machine” evolved to incorporate first laserdisc, and then compact disc technology with the development by Phillips and Sony of the “CD+G”, or compact disc plus graphics standard. This allowed 16-bit graphics to be incorporated directly on the disc, in a way that could be displayed on a monitor, and eliminated the need for printed lyrics.

The karaoke machine used for playback of these CD+G discs, like most consumer electronics, started as a premium item (though less expensive than its predecessor laserdisc player). With a market for both home users and the professional KJ, hardware manufacturers rapidly introduced features such as multiple disc trays, inputs and amplifiers for microphones, and controls that changed the relative pitch of the music, enabling singers to customize the playback to their own vocal range. Standard chips for the decoding of the CD+G sideband were developed and fabricated, allowing consumer electronic giants to mass produce karaoke machines at lower costs, bringing them within the budgets of millions of home users.

The specialty karaoke store also came of age in the retail channel. Sometimes occupying space in a larger music retail establishment or catering to mail-order customers, these outlets were favorites of KJs and home enthusiasts alike, stocking the latest releases from all major manufacturers, selling karaoke machines, microphones and amplifiers, and other hardware and accessories for the enthusiast or professional.

With these innovations came an explosion in popularity for karaoke. Labels releasing karaoke music and a plethora of consumer devices on which to play them burst into the mainstream and proliferated wildly. Nightclubs and bars the world over began offering karaoke nights to their clientele, disc jockeys added karaoke to their repertoire, and specialized “karaoke jockeys” (“KJ’s”) began plying their trade as demand for the phenomenon increased. The number of karaoke specialty labels edged up near one hundred, and it was difficult to find a nightspot that catered to a young, hip crowd that didn’t also include at least one karaoke night per week.

Rightsholders, however, were less than excited about the rise of karaoke. Songwriters and their publishers in general took a dim view of a process that they felt cheated them out of deserved income when lyrics were reprinted on a screen without additional payment and permission. Some artists with publishing rights disapproved of the common people singing their songs in public altogether. Karaoke labels maintained in contrast that obtaining the rights to re-record and mechanically reproduce those songs and reprint the lyrics were sufficient. A clash between the two views was inevitable.

The opposing parties met in the courtroom when ABKCO Music Inc. brought suit against Stellar Records, a leading karaoke producer of the day. ABKCO contended that lyric reprint rights were insufficient for the CD+G, maintaining the contemporaneous display of lyrics on a video screen required in addition a much more restrictive and expensive video synchronization license.

In spite of the fact that the video sync license was originally intended to prevent unscrupulous filmmakers from including musical works in adult films without the songwriter or publisher’s permission, in 1996 the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with ABKCO. Whereas the list of licenses previously necessary to produce a karaoke song was already longer and more expensive than a comparable cover tune release, this ruling meant that each song a karaoke label intended to release would have to be extensively researched to locate the publisher, and then each publisher approached individually to seek permission for the song to be released as karaoke.

The ruling fundamentally changed the business model for karaoke labels, who supplied all the re-recorded songs fueling the karaoke phenomenon. Whereas licensing popular songs was previously a matter of filing the requisite paperwork and paying the statutory fees through performing rights organizations and publisher representatives such as the Harry Fox Agency, there was no clearing house or streamlined method for acquiring video synchronization rights. Karaoke labels were forced to develop and deploy their own in-house license-clearing divisions, and the additional licenses that publishers demanded for video sync more often than not included advances on sales, greatly driving up the cost of production.

This situation led to an impasse for the labels. In a hit-driven business that demanded they record and release songs while they were at the height of their popularity in order to maximize sales, the labels all too often found themselves at the mercy of bureaucracy, awaiting a publisher’s response to a request for a license while the window of opportunity to capitalize on a song’s popularity rapidly closed, a process that could take from several weeks to several months.

Publishers had little incentive to cooperate with karaoke labels, and indeed often took a dim view of them. Following ABKCO v Stellar, every major and dozens of minor publishers found themselves in court with a host of karaoke labels, as the publisher’s legal teams sought to recoup licensing fees from what they saw as years of infringing activity of the karaoke labels’ part. The storm of litigation drove most minor karaoke labels out of business, and left only a few major players in the landscape, themselves crippled by judgments often totaling millions of dollars. By 2006, only a few viable US karaoke labels remained: Chartbuster Karaoke, Sound Choice, and Stellar Records.

At the same time, the introduction of peer-to-peer file sharing systems was beginning to put downward pressure on sales of music in general. As an entire generation of young people began to embrace the erroneous notion that music was and should be free of charge, music labels saw compact disc sales peak, then begin a slide that has yet to level out. Widespread music piracy was becoming the norm. In the karaoke world, this era was ushered in with the introduction of the MP3+G format, a compressed format for karaoke music and video, characterized by small file sizes suitable for easy digital transmission. Eventually, labels would come to find their newest releases available on Bit Torrent sites before many of their retail outlets had received their shipments of those releases.

The most lasting impact of such piracy was on the karaoke jockey. The highest barrier to entry for individuals seeking to become KJs has always been the acquisition of a large library of karaoke songs to offer bar patrons. Pirates seeking a quick buck will sell to those individuals hard disk drives loaded with tens of thousands of karaoke songs, ripped from complete libraries or downloaded from Bit Torrent sites, for less than two hundred dollars. Advertisements for such hard drives can be found in Craigslist postings in virtually every city and town in America.

Adding insult to injury, US karaoke labels struggled under an onslaught of mostly illicit product from overseas. Developments in Europe allowed producers of karaoke for European markets to pay only statutory fees to license karaoke with video sync, ostensibly for sale only in those markets. The internet, however, knows few boundaries, and European labels routinely sell karaoke product to customers in the US, at first on physical discs shipped overseas until a legal loophole in copyright law was closed, but more recently via download.

Faced with rising costs of production, an inability to deliver songs to market in time to maximize profits, a market no longer willing to purchase music instead of stealing it, a flood of grey market product, and millions of dollars in legal costs and judgments, US karaoke labels eventually succumbed to the inevitable. Unable to secure blanket licensing deals with most major publishers, Stellar Records stopped producing songs administered by those publishers, and withdrew into producing only minor chart curiosities. Sound Choice ceased the production of new music altogether in 2009, citing the inability to recoup production costs – they licensed the digital distribution of their catalog to Stingray Digital in Canada, and now base their business model on litigation against their own primary market: KJs who use their trademarked product without legitimately purchasing it. Chartbuster Karaoke folded its tent under pressure from creditors in 2011.

In contrast, karaoke itself is more popular than ever. Karaoke venues have exploded across the landscape – it’s now rare to find any nightspot with significant traffic that doesn’t offer at least one night of karaoke entertainment each week. Franchisees of major restaurant/bar chains such as Appleby’s, Chili’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings have adopted karaoke as major parts of their customer acquisition and retention strategies. Online retailers of karaoke hardware continue to thrive, led by Ace Karaoke and Karaoke Warehouse in the US.

The huge appeal and ratings of television shows featuring singing, such as American Idol, X-Factor, The Voice, and Glee have helped popularize the concept of amateur singing performance among demographics that would never consider patronizing a karaoke bar. As of this writing, there are 609 apps available on the Apple App Store related to or supplying karaoke music, some of them endorsed and branded by major recording stars such as Lady Gaga and T-Pain and historically generating downloads and revenue in the multiple millions.

Feeling their own pain from the downward price pressure introduced with rampant piracy and the rise of the prominence of the “single” (as opposed to albums sales) through such services as iTunes, publishers themselves are gradually becoming more willing to think outside the box for licensing their works, and more welcoming of such alternate revenue streams as karaoke and other interactive music products offer.

Further, the rise of streaming music services like Pandora and Spotify has fundamentally changed the landscape of what it means to “own” music. For this generation and succeeding ones, the trend is toward having access to the desired music files across a wide range of devices and on demand by user, instead of a physical or digital copy of the music file, which must be curated by the user, copied and moved as desired.

These services are in part what inspired Karaoke Cloud. As for what happens next, it’s anybody’s guess. Feel free to comment below.

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