COVID-19 SPECIAL

Japan's karaoke bars adapt to the Covid-19 era

Back in early April, during that brief phase when lockdown felt more like an unexplored alien planet than the inescapable traffic jam it soon became, I called Japan's biggest karaoke operators to see what they made of it all.

Principally, I wanted to know what sort of tech they planned to throw at a problem that, on an early reading, seemed destined to put them all out of business.

There was, I now realise, something visceral about those calls. It was not that, within a couple of weeks, the karaoke pangs of friends and contacts were overpowering. And it wasn't that the plight of Japan's tens of thousands of karaoke establishments particularly stood out in a crisis that forced favourite bars and restaurants to close and caused the whole Japanese economy to shrink a record 7.8 per cent in that very quarter.

It was, rather, an article of geeky faith - an innate confidence that karaoke's survival instincts would propel it towards innovation ahead of everybody else.

If anything was going to find a way for tech to reopen its doors, surely it would be a segment of the leisure industry whose entire 50-year-old business model has involved piling ever more seductive layers of digitalisation (voice assistance, calorie counters, competitive note-hitting gauges) on what is essentially a campfire singalong.

My calls to karaoke majors, asking what sort of plans they were hatching, were in all instances met with a grumpy "don't know". But my faith was rewarded a few months later, with what karaoke now hopes will be its tech rescue package: tweaks to its infrastructure aimed at making public singing coronavirus-safe.

Some of these have been relatively straightforward.

The large chains have introduced apps that turn your smartphone into a remote control to avoid touching communal buttons or screens. Another upgrade synchronises and scrolls the lyrics on your phone, should social distancing mean you are sitting too far from the screen to read the words properly.

Some chains allow the really nervous self-isolator to sing alone in a room in their establishment but be linked online to any other rooms in their nationwide network to form a virtual group.

Arguably the most helpful of all in terms of coaxing people back to the microphone has been Joysound's flagship offering: A series of settings that adjust the tone and clarity of your output to compensate for singing through a mask.

And all of this has been pursued with double urgency. The tech race here has not just been about finding ways to limit the virus' threat long enough to tempt punters back into the rooms and through their song lists, but about maintaining customers' loyalty to the idea of singing with friends in a small room before they permanently opt for something more home-based.

As this crisis has done with so many genres of entertainment, lockdowns or voluntary stints at home have revealed viable - often surprisingly attractive - alternatives to what we were used to.

Bars and entertainment facilities in Tokyo's Shimbashi area in July. The writer says that in Japan, karaoke chains have used technology to make tweaks to make public singing virus-safe. The tweaks aim to be alternatives to what these places provide, rather than replacements. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Amazon's Twitch Sings app, for instance, effectively puts the user in a virtual, global karaoke room wherever they happen to be, and its use has surged. The joy produced by lip-syncing on TikTok and sharing with friends has, for many, produced a passable analogy to the fun of a US$40 (S$55) session at a karaoke box.

Karaoke's haste, at least in Japan, has been to show that these are alternatives to what it provides, rather than replacements.

But, as ever, the most intriguing aspect of tech innovation has been what it reveals about us, the consumers, or in this case about us as individual navigators of a pandemic.

For all the universality of the threat posed by Covid-19, the focus of the public's response has varied widely around the world.

For Japan, part of the protective dogma has been the idea that the virus is spread most perniciously when people speak loudly or shout.

A coronavirus-era bar has already opened in Shinjuku, where customers drink, order and socialise in a silence broken by only the sound of them writing everything down with pencil and paper.

Two of the karaoke innovations - a button you can press to produce dozens of varieties of applause and a facility to write entire conversations directly onto the main screen - have been crafted to satisfy this credo that, apart from the person with the microphone, karaoke under Covid-19 is about keeping your mouth shut.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2020, with the headline Japan's karaoke bars adapt to the Covid-19 era. Subscribe