You've Been Had: The Bar Is Using Karaoke to Get to Your Wallet
Illustration by Mike Gorman
Karaoke can be a dangerous endeavor. What can you sing that won't make friends shun you? How can you go balls-out during your next performance? Each week in "Ask a Karaoke Host," RFT Music writer and professional karaoke host Allison Babka answers your burning questions about maximizing your melodious mutterings and minimizing your friends' pain. Ask her stuff by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or hashtagging #rftkaraoke on Twitter.
Who is karaoke for? Is it for the singers? Is it for the audience? Who is the focus of the night? -- Audience of One
As a karaoke host, I'd argue that neither of those is correct; karaoke really is for the bar or venue that's hosting the drunken singalongs. Your favorite watering hole may offer karaoke, live music, arcade games, bar-top casino consoles and trivia tournaments, but your enjoyment of these amenities is secondary to the venue's true purpose: making money.
I hate to burst your bubble, but think about it:
While you're waiting for your appetizer sampler and bucket of beers, you might pump $5 into the old Pac-Man game as you try for the grand prize of entering "ASS" onto the winners' board. In celebration, you'll probably order more Pale Ale for yourself and for your buddies, and you might start thinking that your arcade luck will carry over to the claw machine. You've GOT to nab that dusty, four-year-old stuffed Yoshi, so you drop another $6 until you win it for your nerdy lady back home. By this point, you've spent two hours and about $40 in this bar, but when you hear the first karaoke singer warble "Livin' on a Prayer," it is ON. You order yet another round as you and your crew look through the songbook and argue over the merits of Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" as a karaoke choice. The bar's pretty full so it's another hour before the host calls you up to sing, but you don't care because you're now doing shots to prep your sweet karaoke voice and give you courage to take the stage. The audience applauds your inventive dance moves as you get to the "Never trust a big butt and a smile" part of your song, which only makes you beg your friends to stay for just a little longer until you can sing "Eye of the Tiger" because you're such a badass.
By midnight, you're convinced that you've had the best night of your life. By midnight, the bar has made an easy $60 on you plus whatever your friends spent, and it also got free entertainment out of your inebriated ass.
That is the point of karaoke. Well, karaoke and everything else in the bar. Passive income rules, and your buzzed little hands can't keep from feeding the machine.
True as all that may be, it's probably not the answer you were looking for. Given the options of the singer and the audience, I'd have to say that karaoke's purpose lies somewhere in the middle. Everyone comes to a karaoke bar for different reasons.
Audience members can enjoy live music (and "music") of sorts while chowing down on potato skins and catching up on friends' lives. They might have bets on what karaoke stereotypes they'll see, or they might just be hoping for a trainwreck. Other audience members see karaoke only as background noise as they shoot the breeze with their favorite bartender or scout the venue for easy, beddable prey.
Karaoke performers might pull out their inner Freddie Mercury or sing through some inner turmoil. By the end of the night, they may have found a groupie who drunkenly tells them that they should have won that terrible INXS reality show.
The audience and performers form a symbiotic relationship, feeding off of each other. Customers clap and howl, nourishing the egos of performers, who then bring even more showmanship to the stage the next time they're called up. As a karaoke host, I really don't care why all of you are there. To get you to stick around and keep drinking, I'll indulge every musical fantasy you've got and tailor your experience to what you're craving. I'm whorish that way, I guess.