Happy 50th birthday, Karaoke! 2021 is the year to celebrate this art form of "empty orchestra", as the Japanese call it. Singa joins in rejoicing with you all 🥳  

Karaoke’s 50-year journey is remarkable – it’s half a century of equal access to singing, performing, and having fun on stage for everyone. Read more about 50 years of inclusiveness and acceptance boosted by karaoke here.

In addition to the unique social and cultural impacts of making singing accessible for all, the emergence of novel gadgets, and new technical solutions play an essential part in what later birthed the karaoke experience we know today. Here is our take on how different inventions and phenomena have shaped karaoke over the years.  

All hail the lead singer

There is a difference between how karaoke-related equipment was invented and how karaoke in its essence got formed. Karaoke gear was developed in various places and phases. Backing tracks, the technique for viewing song lyrics, PA for the output, the mechanism to choose a song, all these elements were developed over time and mostly separately – until they all came together in the quintessence of karaoke.

For example, the bouncing ball technique, which led audiences in theater sing-alongs in the 1920s, and TV shows featuring song lyrics at the bottom of the TV screen in the 1960s, both were forerunners for modern karaoke videos. Some claim these sing-along formats were the beginning of karaoke. In reality, the most significant difference between these arrangements and the real karaoke experience is the lead singer.

The Mills Brothers singing "I Ain't Got Nobody" with the bouncing ball in Max Fleischer's Screen Song cartoon in 1932. Photo source

The sing-along set-up relies on community singing, whereas karaoke leans in the element of performance. Although the audience is usually more than welcome to join the karaoke singer, karaoke is based on the relationship between the performer and the audience. Someone needs to sing into the mic and lead the fun.

The dawn of karaoke gear

The end of the 1960s witnessed the first predecessor of the karaoke machine. In 1967 Japanese engineer Shigekazu Negishi came up with the “music box” in Tokyo. It was essentially a microphone, a tape, and a lyric sheet. A few years later, singing coach and national singing movement advocate Toshiharu Yamashita sold 8-track playback tapes in the Kansai region. Amateur singers had already started singing with karaoke tapes in the late 60s, but Yamashita helped speed up the trend.

The "music box" by Shigekazu Negishi. Photo source.

Some sources say that the term “karaoke” was first used when a Japanese orchestra, which was supposed to perform one evening, went on strike. A machine was used instead to play the music. Others state that “karaoke” was originally a technical term used in the radio broadcasting industry. Indeed, there are many stories about when and how the term first was born. Read more about different theories on how karaoke started here.

Juke 8 – the first karaoke machine

In 1971 something revolutionary happened. A president of a small company asked Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue to record several songs on his keyboard. This company owner knew he would be asked to sing at an after-work event with his business clients. The businessman wanted the songs to suit his voice and asked Inoue to produce some keyboard backing tracks just for him. The evening was a success. When the business owner returned requesting Inoue to produce additional backing tracks, the musician had a eureka moment.

Inoue realized he could incorporate the different already existing innovations into something unique. Essentially, he combined the eight-track accompaniment tapes and created a more advanced device compared to Negishi’s “music box”. Inoue’s machine came with a speaker, microphone, amplifier, and a coin-operated timer. All you had to do was put money inside, and voilà, your song would start playing. The Juke 8 was born!

The man behind the first karaoke machine: Daisuke Inoue and Juke 8. Photo source.

The commercialization of the karaoke experience

Inoue’s device could stock ten cassettes for a total of forty songs. He started renting Juke 8s out to bars, clubs, and later karaoke rooms. The venues in turn charged customers for singing: one song was 100 yen. Inoue’s device didn’t have in-built lyrics, but singers would use song booklets or lyric sheets.

Inoue’s innovation changed everything. For the first time in history, anyone could perform in a bar with a microphone and the support of musical backing tracks. Inoue’s karaoke machine commercialized karaoke and made it accessible to all. Anyone could find their favorite tune, put in the coin, take the mic, and with the aid of backing tracks, entertain the audience with a song or two.

Anyone can be a star

It’s a well-known fact that Daisuke Inoue never patented his karaoke machine. Later, thefather of karaoke” said in several interviews that he had no regrets about never patenting. The patent, however, went to Filipino entrepreneur and inventor Roberto del Rosario.

In 1975 Rosario came up with his own karaoke format called the Sing Along System. The incorporation of digital lyrics into the karaoke experience happened a few years later alongside the invention of the LaserDisc.

Sure, there have been many variations of karaoke before and after the Juke 8, but what Daisuke Inoue created was something unique. He helped democratize singing as an entertainment form and made it possible for anyone to perform on stage.

Inoue’s invention brought karaoke into bars, pubs, and restaurants. Suddenly, anyone could perform, anyone could be a star and sing on stage in front of people, literally, anyone. Stardom, at least local stardom, wasn’t only for the chosen few – it was within anyone’s reach. That had never happened before.

Continue reading about the culture of inclusiveness and acceptance over 50 years here.

For more information about the relevant innovations and events in karaoke's 50-year-old timeline, check out our blog on the essential milestones.

Make sure to join the 50-year celebrations at #50YearsofKaraoke and @singakaraoke on Instagram, as well as @singamusic on Facebook 🎉

Check out Singa’s party singlist, and celebrate 50 years of karaoke!