What's That Noise In Aisle 5?

Croak-ey. Carry-o-key. Kah-rah-okay. Karaoke. It doesn't matter how you pronounce it (kah-rah-OH-kay is right), as long as you get with it. Until now, the Japanese nightclub pastime of singing along with recorded accompaniment has been an oddity in the U.S., confined to Asian hangouts and the occasional establishment trying to boost its bar take. But that's about to change, as karaoke moves into the mainstream of American pop culture.

Karaoke is a natural for celebrity-obsessed Americans, since it gives everyone the chance to be a star--temporarily. After all, even the tone-deaf can sing to background music while the lyrics scroll along a screen at the proper tempo. And the results are far more impressive than singing in the shower, since the canned music and live performance are electronically mixed, then amplified.

UH-HUH. But karaoke's real U.S. home isn't nightclubs, where Yankee beer-guzzlers aren't as enthusiastic as Japanese sake-sippers. Instead, the U.S. market for karaoke turns out to be parties and commercial events: It's replacing disk jockeys at weddings and bar mitzvahs, clowns at kids' birthday parties, and comedians at sales meetings. Corporate sponsors are on board, too, pouring advertising bucks into karaoke promotions at such venues as car dealerships, shopping malls, and grocery stores.

Grocery stores? "I never thought we'd find 50 people a night who wanted to sing in a grocery store," says Joe Leder, manager of an Albertson's supermarket in Wichita. Instead, customers lined up for his week-long country-and-western karaoke promotion in May. Those who belted out such songs as All My Ex's Live In Texas won cash prizes and tickets to a Garth Brooks concert. Better yet: Receipts rose 20% for the week.

The largest karaoke promotion so far has been PepsiCo Inc.'s "Uh-Huh" tour for Diet Pepsi. At more than 3,000 events in March and April, amateurs got the chance to sing a song--and the Pepsi jingle--backed by the Uh-Huh girls (live) and Ray Charles (a cardboard cutout), while some 20 million watched.

COMIC RELIEF. But it is Japan's Pioneer Electronic Corp. that gets the credit (or blame) for bringing karaoke to America. Pioneer first set up a subsidiary to sell karaoke in the U.S. in 1988. This year, sales will approach $100 million. Now, the industry's nascent trade association guesses that U.S. sales of equipment and music could top $600 million in 1992.

That's welcome relief for the stagnant consumer-electronics industry, which showcased karaoke at its semiannual trade show in May. Its centerpiece was a 50,000-square-foot Cafe Karaoke restaurant, which hosted the biggest karaoke event yet: nonstop contests on five stages simultaneously. Coming next? Karaoke Showcase, a weekly TV talent contest that will appear on 120 stations starting June 6.

Don't like to sing? Then try this: At shopping malls across the U.S., you can soon catch the Stand Up To Go tour, a promotion that lets comic wannabes step up to the mike and read jokes as they scroll across the screen. That should be good for plenty of laughs--no matter how dismal the delivery.

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