Live band vs karaoke - what's wrong with you people?

I’m the bassist and lead singer for Ponophobic, a bar band here in Wenatchee. I’m finally playing for money after years of not being in a band. And it’s getting really frustrating.

Back when I was in my early 20s, my city had a thriving live music industry. On any given weekend, you could find ten or more live bands, in a variety of styles, playing at different clubs around town. Although I wasn’t playing in a band back then, I was a regular performer at open-mics and jam sessions. And the clubs were always packed with people who wanted to hear good live music. People would even turn out to hear a band from Seattle, even if they’d never heard of them.

You could stop into one club, and hear an excellent house band playing country music. Same band every week, and there was always a crowd. Down the street, there would be a classic rock band playing to a full house. Yet another club would feature metal bands. Again, packed house.

This was all 10-15 years ago. It was great! Lots of fun and opportunity for local musicians.

Then karaoke came along. First it was just one or two clubs, featuring karaoke once or twice a week. There were still live music clubs everywhere.

Flash forward to today. If I open up my local newpaper’s weekly entertainment insert, and find the section listing the entertainment available at local clubs, here’s what I see:

And so on…

There is exactly ONE club in my town that still features live music! At that club, the dance floor is small, the acoustics are horrible, and the place is overcrowded and constantly getting in trouble for overserving. But the funny thing is that it isn’t the live music that’s attracting people to this club. It’s the fact that it’s a meat market. It’s because “that’s where everybody goes”. It gained its clientele by catering to the younger crowd - putting rock & roll on the karaoke machine when every other club in town had machines loaded with country music. Once they had the crowd, the crowd became self-perpetuating. It’s not the live music drawing them - I’ve seen people in there partying to bands that just plain suck. Most of the people aren’t paying the least bit of attention to the band.

Other clubs have attempted to have live music, and failed miserably. They’ll advertise live music, and nobody shows up. I’ve played to nearly-empty houses more times than I care to count. When my band takes a break, we’ll go outside and look in the window of the club next door or across the street, and see the place packed with karaoke singers. It’s very depressing.

My guitar player’s father played in a country band for many many years, and now he owns a bar. And even he has given up on live music and switched to karaoke and DJs! My band figured that we’d have an almost guaranteed gig, playing in that club at least once a month. But ol’ dad couldn’t get anybody to show up to hear the bands he booked. He switched to karaoke and DJs, and now he’s packing the place every night.

We got a good, regular gig at a club in the next town over. We played two full months there last year - October and December. We played for the bartender, most of the time, because nobody would show up. Meanwhile, a tiny bar down the street was filled to capacity with karaoke singers. We were booked for February also, but the club owner cancelled us an put in a karaoke machine. Now he’s packing the place every night.

Now, before you decide that my band simply sucks: We don’t. My 45-year-old drummer has played professionally for years, from Detroit to Seattle to L.A. to Vegas. My 33-year-old guitarist has played professionally since he was 15. He told me that he made almost $40,000 one year, just playing locally with his father’s band. And while I only started playing professionally a little more than a year ago, at age 36, I’ve been a very good musician and singer all my life, and have plenty of onstage experience. These other two guys wouldn’t be playing with me if I sucked. The few people who do actually listen to us are quick to compliment us. Other local musicians like us. The bartenders at the last place we were cancelled really liked us. The band that followed us after our first month there sucked, and when we came back the people expressed to us how happy they were that the other band was gone and we were back.

The fact is that no band around here can draw a crowd. Even at the one remaining live music club, it is the club itself drawing the crowd, not any particular band. Sure, some of the bands which have been around for years have a small crowd of fans, but still not enough to fill a club. And newer bands like mine simply cannot build a following because we have no place to play. The people around here would rather go sing along with a recording than listen to a good band.

I certainly can’t blame club owners for switching to karaoke. For one thing, it’s cheaper than paying a band. And a club owner can’t justify the expense of paying a band when the band isn’t attracting a crowd. Most of the club owners who have tried live music have lost money every night they’ve had a band. The band pay ends up being more than the night’s receipts.

I’ve also noticed that, since the advent of karaoke, there are a lot more audience members coming up to the band and asking, “Could you guys turn it down a little?” I never saw people doing that 10-15 years ago. Back then, people wanted it loud! Thanks to karaoke, people no longer seem to realize that the drummer has to hit the freakin’ drums! And the other musicians need to be loud enough to balance the sound between them and the drummer. Even to hear themselves over the drummer. (I even heard a club owner explaining this to some complainers, bless his heart.)

On top of everything else, pay rates for bands have not increased in about 20 years. According to other working musicians in other parts of the country, with whom I speak via Internet, they’re still getting paid around $100 per person per night. Pay hasn’t increased, because club owners can’t justify the expense. $100/night was good money 20 years ago. It’s barely enough to justify the band showing up today.

It comes down to the crowds. So my question boils down to this: Why is karaoke so much more appealing to people than a live band? Why do people seem so unappreciative of live bands now? According to other musicians around the country, this situation is about the same just about everywhere except in the major cities.

BTW - I hope this belongs in Cafe Society. If not, could a mod move it, please?

Being both a sometimes sit-in/solo acoustic player and an unrepentant karaoke junkie, I’ll venture a guess. I like karaoke for the same reason I like to play a mini-set on a friend’s guitar while he’s on break: it’s interactive. It’s activity, something that I myself am doing. And that’s what people get a kick out of. Activity, pretending to be the star. When I have played for money as the night’s entertainment, it wasn’t the money I cared about, it was the playing itself. It was the idea that I was entertaining people.

You have to admit that being in the audience at a bar performance is a very passive thing if you actually pay any attention to the music. You’re just listening, and for some people (or most, by the description in your OP), that’s not enough. Now people want to DO. Even if it’s just three or four songs a night in a karaoke bar. They feel like they’re participating, and they’re adding a few drops to the limitless tank of ego that we all have, admit it or not.

But they’re not just supposed to listen. They’re supposed to dance! Doesn’t anybody dance anymore? I’ve very rarely seen anybody dancing to a karaoke singer.

One form of interaction exchanged for another. And don’t get me wrong, I do agree with you that it’s sad there’s not so much of a place for bands anymore. I’ve played to nobody paying attention, and it really put a chip on my shoulder for the night. It’s a complete stab in the dark, but you have to wonder about the cliche MTV “Video Killed the Radio Star” syndrome killing the cover band, too.

You may want to try (or suggest to a bar owner) to do what a band in Toronto did. Offer karaoke but instead of recordings, have a band backing up the singer. I saw that on the news last month and it seemed pretty successful (they did a report after it had been running for several months), there weren’t only singers, people were coming to jam with the band also and the creator of the concept was thinking of expanding it to offer the arena experience also.

Some people like Karaoke over watching a band for the same reason some people like playing golf instead of watching it. Participating is fun. People like to create music - most people sing along to their favorite songs from time to time. Karaoke lets them be part of the music making process without having to practice and have talent. What’s amazing isn’t that people desire to do Karaoke, but that others are willing to go out and listen to it. Because most of it is gawdawful. But maybe it’s the same reason they watch reality TV. Watching people crash and burn is fun for some people.

That doesn’t mean people don’t like listening to music, but that when they go out they’ve found Karaoke is more fun. Some of them, at least.

Yeah, I think that’s a lot of it. Plus, I think a lot of people have now been programmed to expect music to sound exactly the way it sounds on the radio. Something that a three-piece bar band simply can’t do. I already have my hands full - singing lead, laying down the bass line, and frequently modifying the bass line to also incorporate something resembling a rhythm guitar part while my guitarist is soloing. I even end up covering keyboard parts on my bass on a couple songs. Adding another guitarist and a keyboardist would help, but then that would be two more people to split the money with. And unfortunately, it’s hard to find people willing to play for next to nothing for four hours a night.

I absolutely love performing, which is why I did it for free for so long. It’s a rush. So it’s not entirely the money for me. However, right now both I and my guitarist are unemployed (hey, our band name means “fear of work”), so we really look forward to that $100/night. Our drummer works construction, though, and he’s so tired after his work day that he’s getting to the point where beating the drums until 1:30 AM for $100 and for almost no audience just isn’t worth it to him - especially when he has to be back to work at 6:30 AM. And he loves to play just as much as I do.

Anyway, I’m seriously considering packing up and moving to Seattle. I have a few connections there.

To tell the truth, I really, really, really like that idea. It would be a lot like the jam sessions I used to participate in. The biggest problem I can see would be the sheer volume of material the band would have to learn in order to have something for everybody to sing. And judging by the types of songs usually selected by karaoke queens around here, most of it would be easy to sing, but insanely boring to play.

Another problem I could forsee is the “sound exactly like the record” problem. I’ve heard some fine amateur singers in my day who are outstanding when singing karaoke or with an accompaniment tape. But they’re just plain awful when they try to sing with live musicians. Their whole technique is geared to that recording, and when they don’t hear exactly the musical cues they’re expecting they don’t know when to come in.

And of course, you’d need musicians who have the ability to change the key of songs on the fly. Easy to do with a karaoke machine, much more complicated with live musicians.

Logistical hindrances aside, I just had to stick my head in and say… This is a phenomenal idea, and I’ll tell you what if I had the funds, I’d start up my own club for this.

What a cool combo!

I was thinking a while back that, when I win the big multi-million dollar Lotto jackpot, I’m going to open my own club, build it to be ideal for live music, and have live music all the time. Nice, big stage, top-notch lighting and sound system, four bands every night…

Because music today is so specialized? If I walked in to a bar and heard a live band playing a style of music I didn’t like, I’d leave. If there was a cover, I wouldn’t go in. If you’re four white guys without at least one synthesizer, I’m just not interested. With karaoke you at least get a blend of music, from old standards to Abba to newer stuff. And it’s funny watching people make asses of themselves. And with karaoke, it’s easier to tune out if you’re not interested. Live music usually means 110db in a tiny bar. Screw that.

I hafta tell you, I used to go to shows all the time when I was in my teens. From big arenas to hole-in-the-wall metal clubs, I went to em all. But I’m 23 now, not that much older, but going to a show or to hear live music has a lot less appeal, because…

  1. Shitty cover bands are a dime a dozen and only know about 20 songs between em, which I’ve already heard on the classic rock radio station about 800 times. “More Than A Feelin’”, my ass!

  2. Seriously, walking into a bar and hearing some white dude trying to “get funky” on Mustang Sally just does not appeal anymore. And paying $5-10 for a cover and $5-7 for a beer on top of the crappy music? No thank you.

  3. Most music clubs suck. They’re dark, they’re full of cigarette smoke, the beer is hellaciously overpriced, or whatever. You wind up in a crowd, pressed against other, sweaty, drinking people.

  4. Bands are so iffy. There is so, so much suck, and so very little good.

  5. Let’s face it, watching a show on a stage the size of a sheet of plywood is frickin’ boring unless the music is stellar.

  6. Wandering around Bourbon Street and going from bar to bar listening to all kinds of different bands was fun. Going to the one club in the area to hear an iffy band is not fun very often.

  7. My hearing is shot, or at least staggering, and I have no urge to screw it up anymore.

  8. Watching people who think they can sing embarass themselves is a hoot.

My city doesn’t really feature karaoke in bars,* but there’s a dearth of live music as played by bands. Bars, pubs and clubs are dominated by DJs–not necessarily playing loud, in-your-face dance music, but often just a guy noodling away on a set of decks in the background.

My gut feeling is that people prefer this kind of atmosphere because it enables you to focus on the people you’re with rather than on the band. Nothing obliges patrons to stare at the band of course, but if they’re the only thing you can hear then they tend to dominate the evening. House music lets people do their own thing, while still giving them the chance to dance if they want to. It’s also possible to go to a bar playing less-than-deafening electronic music and have a drink and a chat and meet people, while most live music bands feature amplified guitars which are anything but conducive to conversation.

Plus, as GMRyujin points out, so much live music is shitty and esoteric. I used to go gigs featuring unknown local bands when I was younger, but now I save my time and money and only go see bands I recognise.

  • There’s karaoke places where you can hire a room for a party and sing with your friends, but the karaoke machines in bars largely disappeared with the 90s. Thankfully. :smiley:

I’m in 100% agreement with you. There is a lot of crap out there. Although in my area, the lack of live music venues has had sort of a winnowing effect on the local bands - the competition is fierce for gigs, and the bands that just plain suck eventually stop getting hired. So what’s left is actually pretty good. As for “classic rock” - I’d be happy to see it disappear in bars. One of the running jokes on the musician’s forum I visit has to do with that guy in the audience who keeps yelling “SKYNARD!!!” It seems that there is one of those guys in every club in the country. Unfortunately, there are too many “classic rock” bands out there. Part of that is because in most cities, there are a few local cover bands that have simply been around for a really long time, and they keep playing the same stuff they started with 25 years ago. When we were forming our band, we agreed from the beginning that we were not going to be a “classic rock” band. So we focus primarily on music that is from the ‘80s or newer, with an emphasis on current music. However, we do play a few of the chestnuts, mainly because most evenings start out with an older crowd that isn’t interested in hearing me screaming "She f*ckin’ hates me!" So we play older stuff early in the night, and get heavier and newer as the older crowd drifts out and the younger crowd drifts in.

But that brings me to…

To tell the truth, the vast majority of working musicians in cover bands are sick to death of Mustang Sally, Gimme Three Steps, Sweet Home Alabama, Sharp Dressed Man, Old Time Rock & Roll, Brick House etc. But you know why we keep playing them? It’s because, when you’ve got a crowd of people who aren’t dancing, you have to do something. When the guitarist hits the opening riff of Sweet Home Alabama, all those couch potatoes in the club jump to their feet and start shaking their booties. Every time. It makes us sick, but what can we do? It’s no fun at all playing to a bunch of people who aren’t paying the least bit of attention to you. There’s no energy. No wonder some live bands seem to suck. They’re being treated like background music. It’s really very difficult to put on a good show when you’re getting no response from the audience. Some bands would really like to do something interesting, but they’re forced to revert to Mustang Sally to get any kind of reaction from the sheeple.

Oh, and in my area, nobody asks for a cover charge. No club has in years, because people won’t pay it. Beer is about $1.50 - $2.00 a pint on tap, or $2.50 - $3.50 a bottle. (I quit drinking ten years ago, so I’m not really up on current bar prices.)

Every bar I’ve ever been in, music or no, is full of cigarette smoke. And being in a crowd of people used to be fun. Heck, it still is - just look at mosh pits.

True. And so the good ones get no chance at all.

But you see, in the vast majority of clubs, the job of the band is to make people dance. Sure, some clubs are “showcase” joints, where the performances are more concert-like. But most of the time, the intent is to get people dancing and having a good time. So the stage is small to leave more room for the dance floor. When it comes down to it, the point is for people to make their own fun by dancing, or whatever, and the band simply facilitates that.

Now see, this I don’t get. It’s fun to watch people who can’t sing embarass themselves, but it’s not fun to listen to a band that can’t play embarass itself?

Oh and let’s not forget the “CBG factor” - assuming the band isn’t just a “Mustang Sally” cover band - the crowd in Atlanta usually is full of bitter “Comic Book Guys” that HATE dance music but are the ultimate in “what’s cool today”. They’ll usually say things like:

“Worst Swimming Pool Qs cover ever.”
“We have seen that move before - on King Crimson’s 1978 tour!”
“Could his fingering be any more sloppy?”
And so on. I’m not “cool” enough to fit in with these people!

Women are vain creatures and like to fancy themselves the “next Shania Twain”, and flock in groups to sing off-key in Karaoke Bars. Men are horny bastards and follow the scent of packs of drunk office girls gathered in Karaoke bars and wind up there, looking to score for the night, by insincere flattery about non-existant singing skills.

I really need to stop channeling Hemingway.

Ha! And here I was, remembering 15 years ago when the guys in the bar band would always have hot chick jocking all around them. Now, we in the band can’t get a second look from them.

First, I hate Karaoke with a passion. People who can not sing do not sound better after downing half a dozen jello shots. A law should be passed that each perfomance must be recorded and presented to the performer with instructions to listen to it next morning as soon as they drag their butts out of bed.

The music scene wher I live is not so bad, there are Karaoke nights but I can avoid those places. What we have that is really good is a bar dedicated to bluegrass. They have live bands on the weekends and do charge a $5.00 cover to get in. They are always pretty well packed. No one is dancing but we can actually talk to each other without screaming over the band while still be able tosten nd watch the band.

I can not stand watching cover bands or bands that try to pefectly play other band’s songs. If you are a muscian then play your own stuff or cover songs in a way that make them your own.

What I hope is happening now is that after the MTV/video over exposure of music we may be getting back to local bands with heart and styles that do not mimic so new hot band taht the ssaw on TV. Music is an expersion of yourself and not someone else.

As to the whole deal of women doing Karaoke and the guys following the mto those bars, in the bluegras bar the ration of women to men is well above 50%, but keep this a secret.

We’re really lucky here in Indy, we have a great music scene. Cover bands aren’t looked upon too highly, but there are a few that have been accepted in this area.

Here’s a link from our local messageboard discussing how the music scene in Indy has progressed over the years, you might find it interesting, Phase 42.