Some people take karaoke very seriously. In sweaty venues across the country, singers are racking up points in team karaoke leagues, renting live backup bands, or hoping passerby producers sign them on the spot. But now, many of these people aren’t clamoring to bars or lounges for a chance in the spotlight. They’re going to their smartphones.
Mobile games like Just Sing It, Karaoke Anywhere, and StarMaker have turned the Internet into a virtual karaoke bar, allowing users to move their underground passion to the digital mainstream. And these apps are hitting the money notes: StarMaker says its users have logged 2 billion minutes of singing time since launching in 2010. Yes, "billion"—with a "b." That’s around 23,000 hours per day.
StarMaker has amassed nearly half a million likes on Facebook, and Just Sing It CEO Alec Andronikov reports that users sing an average of seven songs or more in one session of his app, "reflecting the addictive nature of karaoke."
"Voice is the last frontier of untapped mobile entertainment for smartphone users," says Andronikov. Just as Instagram and Vine turn your photos and videos into mini-artworks to share with friends, these singing apps are turning your voice into a viral commodity you can broadcast to your friends—whether they like it or not.
Wannabe crooners, divas, and rockers simply choose a song from the apps’ catalogs, and sing into the mic on their mobile device. On StarMaker, your score goes up if you sing well and in tune. Karaoke Anywhere lets you mix and edit your stirring rendition of that Journey power ballad. And on Just Sing It (which Lindsay Lohan apparently uses), filters morph your voice into caricatures, like a singing hamster. All of them allow you to share your performance with friends (and strangers) via Facebook and Twitter.
"Until now, karaoke has stayed in the shadows, with low-quality MIDI recordings, not as much access to current hits, and no ability to be heard beyond the room," says Nathan Sedlander, president of StarMaker Interactive. "StarMaker brings singing out of the shadowy lounges. It offers all the latest hits, and tools that can make anyone sound like a star," like the app’s auto-tune feature.
But it’s pretty unclear if these games, though popular in app stores, are actually good for the wider karaoke industry, which has taken a nose-dive in the United States. Despite the hobby’s feverish fandom (there’s even a U.S. Karaoke Alliance that protects the rights of karaoke disc jockeys, or "KJs"), it’s not enough to rake in the big bucks.
According to business intelligence firm IBISWorld, "The karaoke bars industry has experienced significant declines in revenue, which has been caused by a decrease in per capita alcohol consumption and lower disposable income." Just two years ago, it was reported that the karaoke bar industry sees a 5% drop in revenue yearly in the U.S. Those numbers might go up, however, as the economy continues to approve.
Either way, these apps are designed to spark interest in karaoke among users, and it gives the diehards a cheaper outlet to get their groove on.
But ironically, the apps could be poisonous to the broader industry: IBISWorld points to video games and smartphones as the biggest competition. The firm says there’s been a continued migration of fans from karaoke bars to the safety of their own homes, "where there is an array of video game and Internet-based substitutes." Console games like Rock Band have replicated karaoke’s performance-driven experience in American living rooms, and these newer mobile games accelerate the industry shift.
And these apps are far from a swan song. Last December, StarMaker pulled in $4 million in funding. "It’s validation that the market sees the potential of our platform," says StarMaker’s Sedlander. The company says it hopes to expand its international reach with the cash. Last April, Just Sing It nabbed a million bucks of its own in venture-round funding.
While it’s clear these apps disrupt the traditional model of drunkenly wailing "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in a bar full of strangers, they’ve also filled a void in mobile that’s largely been unexplored.
"Most applications fail to provide an entertaining social experience for people that are hanging out together in person," says Jonathan Apostoles, CEO of JoltSoft, which makes Karaoke Anywhere. "Now, karaoke parties can be thrown together in seconds, and users tell us how our app took over their evening." That’s the sweet spot that these developers have tapped into: They revamped a sputtering industry for the digital age.
The makers of these singing apps also say that their products go beyond the karaoke aspect. In today’s world of Justin Biebers and Rebecca Blacks, technology makes it easy for netizens to upload videos of themselves singing or performing, which could potentially lead to a big break in Hollywood.
Sedlander says StarMaker’s funding will help the app "change the face of talent discovery," and that the market "recognizes the power of crowdsourcing talent as a new paradigm for the entertainment industry."
Alec Andronikov says that his app was not just created to let users sing into their mobile device. He also wants to give users the chance to be discovered, which is another way to help monetize the karaoke experience.
"When you give a teenage girl sitting in her basement in South Dakota the ability to not only become famous on the Internet, but also make revenue by singing into her phone instead of having to travel to an audition, it becomes a very powerful phenomenon," says Andronikov.
Don’t hold your breath if you’re expecting to be plucked from digital obscurity to become America’s next pop superstar, though, because like the offline world, the online sphere is just as crowded with rookie performers. On Just Sing It, for example, 500,000 songs were sung within its first month of launch, and 86% of users made their songs public. Ninety-four percent of users are American.
"We’re getting people who might never sing in public to show their voice to the world, and that’s exciting," says Jonathan Apostoles. Granted, these games can add modifications or mixing to make users’ voices more palatable, just like Instagram can filter the crappiest selfie into profile-picture worthiness.
Singing apps have the popularity to become a powerhouse force in mobile. But despite all their tweaks that reinvent the amateur singing experience—auto-tune capability, on-screen visuals to help you stay on pitch, tweetable recordings—karaoke’s core appeal remains intact.
At the end of the day, it’s still all about throwing dignity to the wind and channeling Aretha Franklin for three minutes of pure catharsis. Members in the cult of karaoke will always have inner rock stars to unleash—either at bars, or on their phones.