Sunday, January 12, 2003

Outcome satisfies karaoke inventor


Machine could've made him rich, if he had a patent

By Hans Greimel
The Associated Press

NISHINOMIYA, Japan - Back when Daisuke Inoue was a youngster banging drums with a local lounge band, he didn't think his invention for sing-along soundtracks and a portable microphone would amount to much.

He certainly had no idea of applying for a patent.

Three decades later, karaoke is a household word around the world and Mr. Inoue hardly sees a dime. His closest link to the business is selling cockroach killer for karaoke booths.

"In 80 percent of the cases, karaoke machine breakdown is caused by bugs," says the 62-year-old ponytailed entrepreneur at his office on the outskirts of Osaka.

The term karaoke - Japanese for "empty orchestra" - actually predates Mr. Inoue's 1971 invention, the "8-Juke," a red-and-white painted wooden box that combined microphone, amplifier and an eight-track tape player with dials labeled in English to "look modern."

Mr. Inoue practiced the original karaoke as a tone-deaf drummer for a singerless band that made the lounge rounds playing requests for customers who wanted to get up and sing. Then he was struck with the idea that a machine could do the same thing.

"I was the worst in the band. I have absolutely no music skill. So they made me business manager," Mr. Inoue says. "I thought, `Why can't a machine do this instead of us?"'

Under his wing, six band members formed a company called Crescent, built 11 of the 8-Juke machines and began renting them out to local bars, where people fed the television-sized box 100 yen, or about 80 cents, to belt out a tune. It was a hefty price back then, but people were happy to pay to indulge their egos.

"Without karaoke, it was nearly impossible to sing like a real pro with a full background band," Mr. Inoue says. "It used to be just a dream."

Within three years, karaoke was so popular that big companies swooped in on Mr. Inoue's idea and introduced their own machines. By the time someone suggested he apply for a patent, it was too late.

"I never even once thought about a patent," Mr. Inoue admits.

Crescent battled the big boys until 1987, keeping pace with a range of newer, better machines. But when laser disc technology came out, he called it quits.

Mr. Inoue, once named by Time magazine among Asia's most influential people, says he has no regrets about losing the patent. Had one made him rich during the booming 1980s, he jokes, he most likely would have overextended himself with other investments and been buried in debt when Japan's economy stumbled.

"I never bought land, stocks, a golf club membership. Nothing," Mr. Inoue says.

For all his global impact on frustrated, undiscovered pop stars, Mr. Inoue reckons he has sung karaoke himself only four or five times, and he is unsentimental about the invention.

"Sometimes l look around at the new karaoke and it's like, `Wow that's great!' But it's completely unrelated to me."




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