LIBERACE bought one. Pia Zadora bought two. Famed rock guitarist Van Halen just bought one for actress-wife Valerie Bertinelli. And today, in this small, unassuming outlet in a corner mini-mall here, Mel Greene steps up to the mike to see if the Mega-Star HP-K7000 is for him. He pops a cassette into the console, steps to the mike, and starts belting out ``New York, New York,'' to the accompaniment of a resounding symphonic background:
Mr. Greene is trying his hand and voice at karaoke, a Japanese word (pronounced car-ah-OAK-ee) meaning ``empty orchestra.'' Here at the Singing Store, the oldest and largest exclusively karaoke shop in the United States, Greene has 22,000 ``minus one'' recordings to choose from - a tape, compact disc, or laser disc recorded with popular songs minus the original artist's voice.
If he wants to slow the music down or change pitch, the HP-K7000 does that for him with the punch of a button. If he wants his voice to reverberate more or less, strengthen the highs or lows, he can do that too. When he has everything just right, the machine will hand him the new cassette with his own voice, symphony and all.
Japan has turned karaoke into a $1 billion craze in the past 10 years. And the idea is beginning to take hold in the US, judging by sales of machines, the numbers of hotels, clubs, bars, and home users that have gotten in on the act - and the number of companies now producing tapes (about 17).
``People are on the move and want to sing, but don't want a 2,000-lb. albatross [piano] around their neck,'' says Ernie Taylor, co-owner of the store that is also a countrywide wholesale outlet. He estimates the number of ``minus one''-type singing machines sold in the US is about 700,000 since 1982. His piano store sold the first that year and began to experience such demand that he got out of pianos and exclusively into karaoke.
``I've wanted to sing my entire life,'' says Greene, a retail businessman who recently retired and is looking for a way to perform for weddings, luncheons, anniversaries, and other presentations. ``This is a real boon in that you can learn through hearing yourself, and you don't have the prohibitive cost of paying an orchestra, which can be astronomical.''
``It's replacing the piano bar,'' adds R.D. Laing, a Singing Store customer who recently purchased a Mega-Star HP-K7000 to perform at bar mitzvahs and parties. ``People love the greater variety of music and they also want to get in on the act.'' Taylor adds that video versions of singing machines are popular in hotel lounges because the words appear on the screen and everyone around can join in.
The Singing Store estimates its own sales of higher-end singing machines at about 10,000 in the past five years, growing at a rate of about 45 percent a year. Less expensive models are also available in catalogs from such stores as Sears, Pennys, and Sharper Image. Last year, the Singing Store itself did $1 million in business. Taylor says the strongest sales of machines and tapes are to major metropolitan areas and says he knows of about 100 sing-along clubs in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
``It's definitely the trend of the '80s,'' says Fred Davis, a former choir director who also toured with his own 22-piece band and now is a sound consultant. ``The versatility and convenience is very high, and the cost very reasonable.'' (The HP-K7000 is about the size of one large piece of luggage.) He adds that the digital transposer of the HP-K7000, which allows the operator to slow tempo and alter pitch in music from any standard tape, might annoy the purist, sensitive to such instruments as violin and brass.
Part of what is making the karaoke idea take off, say users, is the number of companies making ``minus one''-style tapes. ``In the beginning, it was only Japanese firms coming up with tinny orchestrations that were just awful,'' says Taylor. ``Then when US companies started getting in on the act, there was suddenly much more interest.''
``You're pretty much locked in to what arrangements and orchestrations are available,'' adds Greene.
``And if those don't suit your artistic sensibility, you are out of luck.'' Companies now listed in the Singing Store distribution catalog include such names as Dreamaker, Dyna, Denon, Nashville Sound, Sound Tracks, and Starlight Productions. Prices are about $10 to $14, with each recording carrying about six songs. Sing Along equipment itself carried by the Singing Store ranges from $99 to $4,000, according to Taylor. Names include Fleco, J.V.C., and Lasonic. All are made in Japan.
A top-of-the-line Pioneer laser disc system, which includes a TV monitor and is designed for karaoke bars, costs between $8,000 and $9,000 installed.