Karaoke bars lose sway as life of the party

Lu Feiran
Going to karaoke bars was once a viral way of entertainment, but not anymore.
Lu Feiran

Karaoke bars used to be all the rage in Shanghai. People like Cui Yihua, who love to sing, were frequent patrons. No longer. New entertainment trends have emerged as public tastes change.

Cui, a customer service manager, had been going to karaoke bars, called KTV in China, since her days in high school. Then about three years ago, the visits began tapering off without her really noticing the change in her habits.

It's a change, however, that has infected the whole industry. Data technology company Tianyancha found that China's mainland-registered karaoke bars have declined by two-thirds since 2015, to about 46,000 nowadays.

"That information shocked me at first," says Cui. "But then when I thought it over, I realized that my friends and I have stopped going to karaoke for some time."

The data on karaoke venues was released by the Communication University of China. It also noted that customer numbers in karaoke clubs decreased by 70-80 percent when coronavirus struck.

But is the pandemic the only factor to blame for the genre's decline? Probably not.

The digital age has ushered in karaoke apps where singers can perform anywhere, anytime. Moreover, entertainment tastes have changed. For example, many young people today are taken with the new fad of role-playing murder mysteries.

Karaoke originated in Japan in the 1970s. The word "karaoke" literally means "empty accompaniment," which refers to the instrumental music of a song, without vocals.

In the late 1980s, karaoke bars came to China. By 1989, former ballrooms in Beijing were being equipped with karaoke machines.

The bars appeared in Shanghai in 1995, when Taiwan-based Cashbox Partyworld entered the scene. Private rooms, complete with catering services, soon became popular venues for karaoke parties and family get-togethers.

More than 10 chains of karaoke bars mushroomed in Shanghai and across the country. But two decades later, most of them, including Cashbox, either have reduced numbers of outlets or disappeared completely.

Jacob Wang was once the manager of a chain-owned karaoke bar. He says the reasons for the industry's demise are rather complicated.

"The rents went up every year, while many songs were removed from available playbills because of copyright issues," he says. "But I think the most important reason is that the lifestyle of young people has changed. The first-generation karaoke bar customers are now at least in their 40s. And when we were young, we hardly embraced the entertainment choices of our parents, did we?"

Karaoke venues face another setback.

China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism has announced new rules that come into effect on October 1, banning karaoke songs of "illegal content."

Songs on the banned list include those that incite ethnic discrimination, endanger the national interest or promote obscenity, gambling or violence. Content providers will be required to censor inappropriate songs and provide a supply of "healthy, uplifting" music to karaoke venues.

This is not the first time that national authorities have cracked down on karaoke venues. In 2015, the ministry blacklisted 120 songs, including those with titles like "Beijing Hooligans," "Suicide Diary" and "Fart," according to the Global Times.

Fewer people going to karaoke bars doesn't mean singers are giving up their passion. Rather, many have simply switched their operating mode to karaoke apps available on mobile devices.

Leading apps, such as Quanmin Karaoke and Changba, have attracted more than 300 million downloads and created an industry value of 7.3 billion yuan (US$1.1 billion) in the country, according to the Tianyancha report.

Cui says she uses Quanmin Karaoke, and the experience is generally rewarding.

"For one thing, it's free to download," she says. "And with Bluetooth, you can sing with just a microphone connected to your smartphone, and the app records your performance. For a price, it can even modulate your voice to make it sound more music-studio generated. It's not expensive; most people can afford it."

Such online apps feed into social media. Users can turn their singing performances into music videos and share them on social platforms. Listeners can even reward them with virtual gifts.

"I think the best thing about such apps is that you can sing whenever you feel like it, rather than having to book a karaoke room ahead of time and then take the time to go there," Cui explains.

Entertainment forms have become so prolific nowadays. Young people have more choices than their forebears two decades ago.

One of the most popular offline activities just now is live action role-playing games, called jubensha in Chinese. The games follow loose scripts of murder mysteries or other fictional settings.

At the end of 2020, there were more than 30,000 jubensha venues in China, with an estimated industry value expected to reach 15 billion by the end of this year.

Live action role-playing originated in the West in the late 1970s and was first introduced in China in 2016. It took three years before the entertainment genre exploded into popularity here.

The game usually involves a small group of people and a pre-written script, usually about a murder case. Participants play their respective roles in a story and communicate with others in the hunt for clues to solve a case. Each role has an identity and a "mission," and players need to hide their mission from others. Players develop their own solutions and then vote for the murderer.

English teacher Lilly Chen is a frequent player of live action role-playing games. The demise of karaoke doesn't bother her because she says she is "totally tone deaf."

"Karaoke has no sweet memories for me," she says. "I went to bars only on rare occasions when I felt I had to, such as class get-togethers at university. Imagine the awkwardness I felt when my classmates tried so very hard to stifle their laughter when I was singing."

But role-playing games are different, she explains. They don't require any special skills – just a quick brain and some social abilities.

"It is good that people have more choices now," says Chen.

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