The ingenuity of a phonograph’s mechanism may incite the inventive genius to its improvement, but I could not imagine that a performance by it would ever inspire embryotic Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts, and Wagners to the acquirement of technical skill, or to the grasp of human possibilities in the art.

When music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application… it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely.
— John Philip Sousa, September 1906

John Philip Sousa was right, of course, the technology got better…a lot better. I’ve got a device in my pocket right now that can stream basically any song you can think of as long as it’s not on a Thom Yorke solo album.

But do we enjoy our electronic music makers at the expense of the amateur? Has the amateur “disappeared entirely”?


The music of amateurs can still be heard in nearly every small town and large city across the United States. It didn’t disappear, a lot of it just moved to the karaoke bar.

In the early 70’s a not-very-gifted drummer named Daisuke Inoue built and leased out the first 11 karaoke boxes to bars around Kobe, Japan. In less than a decade there were thousands of karaoke bars all over Japan. 

“For a lot of us Americans, David Byrne was how we first got our look at karaoke,” said Rolling Stone writer and author of a new karaoke memoir Rob Sheffield. “The Talking Heads video 'Wild Wild Life’ in 1986 was set in a karaoke bar, which at that point was strictly a Japanese thing. I remember watching that video on MTV in ’86 and thinking wow okay there is this club that they’re in where all these people are just getting up and singing a line of the song. And I didn’t know the word karaoke at that point but the seed was planted for it to become the thing that it became later in the nineties.”

As late as 1992 there were still questions about whether Karaoke could actually ever take root in America. 

It was movies throughout the 1990s that were largely responsible for popularizing karaoke in the United States. “I think the movie The Crying Game in ’92,” said Sheffield, “the way it used karaoke as plot exposition was really ahead of its time to say the least, since pretty much every Hollywood movie since then has attempted to work in a karaoke scene if it’s at all possible.”

The same thing that had happened in Japan, happened in the U.S. Amateurs found out that there were places they could get together and make music, and immediately they starting doing it as if it were something they’d always done.

Now, are karaoke bars churning out “embryotic Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts, and Wagners” to quote Sousa? Probably not.

But, they are teaching people one way to intensely love music. It’s about being willing to step up and to take a turn, to interact with music, test it out, get familiar with it, talk about it, laugh about it, hate some of it, and let it into your life in a more complex way than just through a set of earbuds.

Are you an amaeteur musician you loves to sing karaoke? What are you favorite karaoke jams? Tweet @hearpitch and let us know!



Listen to the Bonus Track with Rob Sheffield