Karaoke Boom Turns High-Tech

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

VISITORS to the Anchor Military Singing Bar in Japan might be shocked to see a sample of the latest in karaoke.

Instead of emoting such favorites as ``My Way,'' the amateur Japanese singers at Anchors take their pick of propaganda songs from World War II. As battle scenes with Zero fighters flash across a backdrop, a customer can don an old military uniform, wield the microphone, and belt out tunes of imperial glory.

Such nostalgia for war days, however, is only one of many permutations and reverberations that the karaoke business has undergone since its debut in Japan nearly two decades ago.

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New uses and technologies, especially advances in digital electronics, have helped karaoke to roar along to ever higher popularity, especially in Japan and East Asia.

In the United States, karaoke's popularity has kept pace but lags behind that in Japan, according to Pioneer Electronic Corp., maker of laser-disc machines that display a song's lyrics with a video image.

``According to some, many Americans aren't good at singing because music is not a compulsory subject of education in the US,'' states a market-survey report on karaoke done by Pioneer. ``It may be for this reason that many more people than in Japan refuse to sing when they are requested to do so. However, this will change as karaoke permeates.''

To spur more Americans to pick up a mike, Pioneer plans to build a chain of some 500 rental rooms for karaoke across the US. Such commercial establishments for private singing became a big hit three years ago in Japan, where they are known as karaoke ``boxes.'' Pioneer's first such ``Star Factory'' opened this year in Chicago.

``People think karaoke is popular only among Asians,'' says Atsuhi Ota, a marketing manager with Pioneer Electronic Corp. ``But we want white people to enjoy it, too.''

Translated literally as ``empty orchestra,'' karaoke started out in Japan with just the basic equipment of a microphone, recorded music without words, and an amplifier, usually one with an echo-chamber function to help bad singers croon like budding Sinatras, at least to the ears of their friends.

Karaoke has become a way of life to the overworked and group-oriented Japanese, who like to relax into the wee hours at some 350,000 special singing ``bars.'' To work on their performances, fledgling songbirds flock to some 100,000 ``boxes,'' or karaoke rental sound booths. An estimated 6 million people in Japan sing karaoke every day at such commercial establishments.

FOR the Japanese, karaoke is a way to drown one's sorrows, relieve stress, impress clients, make friends, or enjoy a moment in the limelight as an individual with or without some talent, experiencing vicariously the thrill of stardom. Bars are popular as after-hours watering holes for Japan's ``salarymen,'' but the biggest users of the boxes are women in their 20s.

``Every Japanese, except young children, has tried it,'' says Mr. Ota, who surveyed the karaoke market in 1992 for Pioneer. ``The Japanese aren't very good at communicating, so we sing to each other to express our emotions.''

The government's Leisure Development Center ranks karaoke as Japan's fourth most popular pastime. Two magazines in Japan are dedicated to the industry.

Whatever its popularity and social function in Japan, karaoke has brought amateur singers out of the shower and onto mini-stages around the world. The word ``karaoke'' was recently put in Webster's 10th New Collegiate Dictionary. And in China, the communist party has approved some 1,000 politically correct songs for karaoke.

``Karaoke that comes from abroad brings with it both the culture and the bad influences of the place where it comes from,'' stated the party's newspaper.

In Japan, the top 100 karaoke songs are Japanese pop standards along with ``enka'' or old syrupy folk ballads. An occasional bar or box is equipped with English-language songs, ranging from ``Old Folks At Home'' to ``Material Girl.'' Accompanying videos often have a certain non sequitur quality. ``California Dreamin' '' is a tour of Zen temples, while images of military jets flash across the screen during ``Love Me Tender.'' ``My Way'' shows someone practicing his golf swing.

Japan's exports of karaoke equipment to Asia, most of which are Pioneer's laser-disc machines, have grown rapidly since the late 1980s, mainly to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. Karaoke has become a Japanese cultural export with ``the largest range of influence,'' Ota says.

Pioneer gave karaoke its second wind in the 1980s by putting words on a screen for the singer to follow. The company's laser-disc machine technology dominates the commercial karaoke business. The most commonly used machines hold 144 discs with about 4,000 songs, and cost about $40,000.

But Pioneer's prospects are unclear as big electronic companies entered the business this year with video compact-discs for karaoke.

``The CD image is not as sharp as a laser disc,'' admits Sony Corporation spokesman Andrew House, but the CD unit is smaller, cheaper, and aimed at the home market, where karaoke has made little headway. Sony has joined forces with Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Victor Co. of Japan (JVC), and Philips Electronics of the Netherlands to sell the new video CD.

Pioneer's own venture into CD-karaoke came out last year with ``Private Disk,'' a recordable CD machine that enables singers to record their songs at a price of about $20 for an 18-minute disc.

A big hit in Japan two years ago was a karaoke ``grading machine'' that scores singers on how closely they follow a tune's melody and words. Friends can compete on who is the best imitator of the original song.

Karaoke has found its way into tourist buses, homes for the elderly, wedding halls, bowling alleys, factories, and hospitals. Trying to win wee warblers, Sony sells a plastic, primary-colored tape player with a karaoke microphone.

What's next? Hitachi Ltd. plans a videocassette recorder that can be used for karaoke. Pioneer promises something new soon, but it won't say what.

Some analysts predict a machine that can put the singer's image into the video. Many karaoke bars already rent Polaroid cameras so that singers keep a visual memory of themselves.

A team of university researchers in Japan is working on a ``virtual performer'' machine that will go way beyond the old echo chamber. They are designing a computer that will automatically adjust a singer's tempo and voice to the music and even fix the occasional off-key note.

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