The Father of Karaoke

February 2009

(Photos: AFP)
(Photos: AFP)

He once claimed that he went to school in order to sleep, and that laziness was the major factor in thinking up karaoke. Daisuke Inoue never learned to read music, so he taught himself new music just by listening and repetition. He also claimed, in an interview with Time magazine, that while at school in Osaka, Japan, he chose to take up the drums because “all you have to do is hit them.”

By the early 1970s, he was part of a band which played in bars and clubs in nearby Kobe. The Japanese custom of providing musical entertainment for evening outings meant that it came quite naturally for the audience to sing along with the band. Mr. Inoue hit on the idea of pre-recording his own backing tracks and encouraging customers to sing, however unmusical or inhibited they might be, by following instead of leading, and he used technical tricks to drown or attenuate the more jarring singing styles that emerged.

It started in earnest in 1971, when the President of a steel company invited him to join a week-end company trip to a resort to provide the entertainment. Unable to accept, Mr. Inoue created a substitute for the real thing by using music recorded on tape. It worked like a charm. Although this could have made him a millionaire had he only thought of patenting it, he has no regrets. As he told an interviewer from The Independent, “I’m not an inventor. I simply put things that already exist together, which is completely different. I took a car stereo, a coin box and a small amp to make the karaoke. Who would even consider patenting something like that?”

Others have and did, of course developing more sophisticated models. But initially, Mr. Inoue rented out his karaoke machines with tape-recorded music at relatively little profit – 100 yen per song – the price of a few drinks in 1971. Competitors sprang up, threatening his business, more especially with the emergence of laser disc-based machines in the 1980s: he reacted by successfully offering a major rival, the Daiichikosho Company, his services in handling their machines.

Today, the word karaoke needs no translation. Its meaning in Japanese is “empty or missing orchestra.” Roberto del Rosario, a Filipino national, was granted patents in 1983 and 1986 for a device generally known as the “karaoke machine.”

The most basic karaoke machine today has a microphone, means to alter the pitch of recorded music and an audio output. Increasingly sophisticated models can be found in entertainment hotspots; for example, karaoke boxes – small or medium-sized rooms or enclosed spaces rented by the hour or half-hour in hotels, bars, clubs, lounges and restaurants. Daisuke Inoue, however, is particularly delighted with what he has heard about its healing powers in old people’s homes, hospitals, therapy or, generally, in the private lives of the depressed and lonely. It is a way to let go, to feel better. Or to have a chance to realize that secret desire to perform, no matter how well you sing.

More recently, he has invented and sold a device which releases chemicals to kill the cockroaches that enter karaoke machines, building nests and chewing wires. His latest invention is an environment-friendly pot that electrolyzes water for washing laundry, dishes and even mouths, without detergents or chemicals: this time round he is using the national and international patent system.

By Anuradha Swaminathan, WIPO Editorial Unit

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