Karaoke Scene in Portland, Oregon

by David Lee Garcia
Some people really get into karaoke

Some people really get into karaoke

Karaoke from Hell, where people get to sing with a live bandKaraoke From Hell! Patrons sing with a live band!

Friends enjoying private karaoke at the VoiceboxFriends enjoying private party karaoke at the Voicebox.

Karaoke mixer and softwareSoftware and Mixer used for karaoke.

Karaoke brings out the hugs in all of us Karaoke can bring out the emotions.

Women singing KaraokeWomen singing karaoke.

Men singing karaokeMen singing karaoke.

High quality karaoke, with Baby Ketten Karaoke!

Stripperaoke at the Devil’s Point Strip Club, Portland Oregon.

Portland, Oregon: Karaoke Town

Portland, Oregon is known for a wide variety of notable things, from microbrews, to Voodoo Donuts, to the Portland Trailblazers, to the outdoor opportunities, to some of the most topless bars and tattoo shops per-capita than anywhere in the country. One of the less extreme things to do in Portland’s nightlife is to have fun in the ever-growing karaoke scene. One does not necessarily have to sing to have fun, or even be a good singer for that matter! Currently there are nearly 300 venues in Portland that feature karaoke. Some venues even have karaoke 7 days a week! Should Portland’s motto be re-named “the city that sings”? Well, probably not. Karaoke is in no way unique only to Portland, but there are a very wide variety of karaoke bars, and traveling karaoke shows, and selective high-end karaoke establishments that truly are unique to Portland, OR.


History of Karaoke

Karaoke is an abbreviated word, formed from combining abbreviations of “karappo” meaning empty, and “okesutura”, or orchestra. Karaoke, of course, features recorded music that is missing the lead vocal track, allowing the karaoke singer’s voice to be the main voice heard.

Traditionally, since ancient times, Japanese parties involved someone singing and others participating by clapping and keeping time or singing along. They are also traditionally generous and encouraging to anyone singing, even if they sang out of tune, which sparked laughter and made the parties livelier. This tradition is also true for many cultures all over the world. In nearly every culture, music is shared by people singing and dancing around a campfire, and later in almost every performance of music people enjoy participating, whenever it is allowed and encouraged.

Karaoke is said to have originated in Kobe, Japan. One story is that a guitarist that played at a snack bar was unable to perform due to illness, so the bar owner prepared tapes of popular music and encouraged patrons to sing along. Another story is that in 1969, a keyboard player named Daisuke Inoue was asked by a businessman to record some of his favorite songs in keys that he could sing to, and soon he was very pleased and asked for more tapes. He then got the idea to hire someone to build an electronic device that he called the Juke 8; a coin-operated device with a microphone and an amplifier with a selection of songs people wanted to sing. The popularity grew rapidly in Japan, and soon spread to other parts of the world. Within a year he had sold 25,000 units in Japan.

Since the invention of Karaoke, there have been companies that are dedicated to recording versions of popular songs without the lead vocal track. The quality of these recordings varies greatly depending on the company, but in recent years the quality of recordings has reached near-matches with the original recordings in terms of sound quality and accurateness. Through competition and demands of karaoke fans, the music quality and song selection continues to grow. According to several Karaoke Jockeys I have asked, one of the best companies as far as this quality goes is “Sound Choice”.


Popularity of Karaoke in Portland

Why is Karaoke becoming so popular in Portland? I have a couple of theories for this. Karaoke seems to fit well with the culture of Portland bars. People like to have low-cost and informal fun activities, whether they are singers or just like to watch other people cut loose and have fun. Some of the entertainment comes from simply getting enough “liquid courage” to get up and try to sing in front of friends or strangers.

The people who run the show, Karaoke Jockeys, are known as KJ’s. Some venues that run daily have a rotating staff of KJ’s, each having their own designated days to work. It would be interesting to see a study of the economic impact of karaoke in Portland, or to compare it with the live music that seems to have dwindled in recent years. There are economic reasons for this shift to karaoke over live music. The obvious reason is it is far less expensive for bars to pay one KJ than an entire band. As mentioned earlier, Karaoke seldom has a cover charge. The types of audiences that karaoke attracts differs from the live music crowds, in that I suspect they may purchase more drinks overall, in order to “loosen up” sufficiently to overcome the anxiety of singing in front of crowds. Not everyone who attends is a singer, as many people go just to enjoy watching others perform or make fools of themselves.

Some people are regulars and are known for singing spectacularly, while some regulars are known for singing horribly but having fun, while some are just Portland-famous, known for their down right weirdness. For some of these regulars, it is truly an act, consisting of wearing costumes or singing the same song every single time. A man goes by the name “Elvis”, and he wears a cape and carries a little guitar. One regular goes by the name “Broadway” and dresses in fancy one-color suites, complete with hats and a cane, and sometimes a fur coat, and he only sings “Get On Up” by James Brown. Meanwhile, some other regulars, like “Huey Rocks”, are known for never singing the same song twice yet singing spectacularly every time. Some regulars engage in something unofficially dubbed “Scary-aoke” where they have no idea what song either the KJ or their friends will select for them, which can be very entertaining!

Karaoke tends to be relatively inexpensive in comparison with watching live shows, in that only a few places actually charge admission for karaoke. The Voicebox has two locations, and is a venue where parties rent private rooms and only sing in front of their friends. There is an hourly charge for this upscale VIP styled karaoke. Karaoke from Hell features a live band and there is a cover charge that pays the band members. Some venues, such as the Alibi Tiki Lounge, offer hourly rates for private parties that can happen before the karaoke opens to the public at 9:00pm.

Another reason live music and even many karaoke music has dwindled in Portland is from the creation and subsequent enforcement of the organization called ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). They basically force venues to pay exuberant amounts of money for what they claim is for royalties for any copyrighted music to be performed, or slap them with huge fines for violations. However, there is no way to keep track of which songs are played and actually get those royalties to the bands, so this poses a problem. They also have reportedly tried fining bars that only have bands play original music. A convenient way bars have worked around ASCAP is to have a library of karaoke songs they pay royalties to annually.


Shows Unique to Portland, OR

Karaoke from Hell is one of these traveling shows. Karaoke singers have the opportunity to play the role of a real rock star for a few minutes, singing with a live band! Their set list consists of over 500 songs, and they play at different venues throughout Portland. They have a weekly show at Dante’s Inferno on Mondays. Some other venues include Mississippi Pizza, The Spare Room, and The Kenton Club.

Baby Ketten, (intentionally misspelled) is the epitome of the TV Show Portlandia, and is a traveling karaoke act. Don’t expect to find popular songs in their books. Baby Ketten claims to cater to “good singers” who want great sound and hard to find songs by hard to find bands. Looking through their thin songbook, the average person might be hard-pressed to recognize a single band or song. One might call this target audience, “pretentious Hipsters” or “Music Snobs”. They do seem to live up to Portland’s catch-phrase, “Keep Portland Weird”!

Stripparaoke is just what it sounds like – karaoke at a strip club! The Devil’s Point Strip Club began doing this on Sunday nights in 2005, which at the time was their slowest night. Soon, the popularity of this unique act boomed, and it became their busiest night. Some karaoke singers are very passionate about karaoke, so they try their best to sing well, while on stage with a stripper doing her best to distract them, while providing boundless entertainment for the audience! Let’s face it, no body cares how well people sing at this event; the most entertaining part is to see singers lose their concentration and mess up! “The combined performance quickly becomes more theatrical and burlesque-like than any run-of-the-mill strip club show, with a huge bin of backstage props at dancer’s disposal.” (TheGuardian.com) Since then other cities have done similar events, but The Devil’s Point claims to be the originator of Stripparaoke.

If you live in Portland or are visiting, there are plenty of fun activities to do, especially if you are over 21 years of age. If you have never tried karaoke, maybe after visiting this page you might want to give it a shot!