Karaoke shops offer hobby space to win back business



Karaoke venues across the country are reaching out to customers beyond those who love belting out a tune in a bid to bolster their bottom lines amid a tough business environment.

With the waning popularity of karaoke, arguably the king of entertainment in Japan two decades ago, more and more shops are offering customers a variety of creative options — such as using the karaoke “boxes” as classrooms for dance and language lessons, or as studios to practice guitar in.

Take for example Shidax Corp.’s Omiya Sashiogi branch in Saitama. On a typical weekday morning, its spacious party room is transformed into a dance studio. Soothing Hawaiian music flows from the speakers, and a group of housewives and others dressed in T-shirts and brightly colored tropical skirts enjoy a hula lesson.

In another smaller karaoke room, a few people gather for a class to practice English conversation.

“It’s helpful because here we can also practice pronunciation by singing English songs on the karaoke machine,” says a woman in her 40s, who declined to be named.

Shidax began offering singing and other types of lessons at two of its karaoke stores in Tokyo 13 years ago. The business has since expanded and now classes are offered at 77 of its 300 shops nationwide.

Some 50 different courses are now on offer, ranging from hobbies like knitting and calligraphy, karate and children’s ballet lessons, to financial-planner training.

Most of the classes are held during the daytime, with those enrolled mainly being either children or people in their 50s and 60s. Recently, Shidax officials say a growing number of participants are even in their 70s.

As karaoke rooms typically have rather dim lighting, brighter florescent lamps have been added to those used for classes.

“It is our strategy to attract more customers through the multiplier effect from the learning programs,” according to Shidax. “We hope customers will use (our karaoke shops) as an alternative to local community centers.”

Similarly, amusement-facilities operator Adores Inc. has also come up with a new way to utilize karaoke space. When it opened its new karaoke store in Tokyo’s digital haven of Akihabara in August, almost half of its rooms were installed with special equipment for guitar practice.

When a song is selected on the karaoke machine, the music-video footage shows not only the lyrics but also chords for the guitar and the appropriate finger placements. In addition, the system allows customers to plug in their electric guitars and provides sound effects that enable them, even when practicing alone, to feel as if they are playing in a band. The karaoke-room-turned-guitar-studio facility is a selling point to many customers who want to strum an hour or two alone in the rooms.

To attract those who might want to stop by on their way home from work, the Akihabara store now also rents out some guitars for ¥300.

“There are those ‘one-person-karaoke’ customers who come to hit a few strings as they sing alone, and there are others who come in a group to accompany their colleagues’ singing with the guitar to liven up the atmosphere,” according to an Adores spokesperson.

The number of people who went to a karaoke facility in Japan in fiscal 2011 ending March 2012 was estimated at about 46.4 million, 20 percent less than its peak recorded in fiscal 1995, according to the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association.

Commenting on the reasons behind the fading popularity of karaoke, NLI Research Institute researcher Naoko Kuga says, “The economic slump is of course an element, but the diversification of entertainment and leisure is also a major factor.”

On top of strategies such as having new facilities specifically cater to “one-person-karaoke” customers, chain store operators “have no other choice but to come up with all kinds of tactics” with regard to usage beyond just singing along to the hits, she says.